Many years ago when women in most parts of the world were relegated to housework, women in Ethiopia were getting increasingly engaged in their national duty of protecting their country. They were upholding Ethiopia’s sovereignty by bearing arms or participating in war expeditions against foreign invaders while also helping run affairs.
History says that between 1464 and 1468, during the reign of King Zara Yaqob, women’s expansion into political positions became more clear-cut. Zara Yaqob “established a women’s administration by appointing his daughters and relatives to key provinces,” according to historian Richard Pankhurst.
Zara Yaqob’s wife, Queen Eleni, would become a skilled diplomat and military strategist. A Hadəyya noblewoman, who was kind and pious, and also a good Christian theologian, she was largely responsible for the arrival in 1520 of the Portuguese as one of the first diplomatic missions, Ethiopian history says.
What an influential queen she was, and what foresight she had! Ahead of the arrival of the Portuguese, she had predicted the Turks’ interest in invading Ethiopia’s coastline. Thus, she proposed a joint attack strategy to the Portuguese leadership against the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks.
In a letter to the Portuguese calling for a coalition, Eleni wrote: “We have heard that the Sultan of Cairo assembles a great army to attack your forces…against the assault of such enemies we are prepared to send a good number of men-at-arms who will give assistance in the sea bound areas…If you wish to arm a thousand warship we will provide the necessary food and furnish you with everything for such a force in very great abundance.”
The letter proposing Ethiopian-Portuguese military cooperation against the invaders was cited by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. The Turks were ultimately defeated.
Indeed, Eleni’s influence in the affairs of Ethiopia was massive. During her lifetime, she acted as a de facto co-regent or advisor to several emperors. She was in the palace during the reign of three notable Emperors — Zara Yaqob; his son by another wife, Baeda Maryam I, and Na’od.
An article written by Rita Pankhurst states that Zara Yaqob was deeply fond of his wife, Eleni, for “she was accomplished in everything: in front of God by practising righteousness and having strong faith, by praying and receiving Holy Communion; in worldly terms, she was accomplished in preparing food [for the royal table], in familiarity with the books, in knowledge of the law, and in understanding the affairs of state.”
Baeda Maryam, who had lost his mother, also loved Eleni very much, like his own mother. As already mentioned, Eleni was very kind and religious and even wrote two religious works: one on the Laws of God, and the other on the Holy Trinity and the Purity of St Mary.
The queen was also behind the translation of Greek and Arabic religious texts into Gə’əz, and built and repaired many churches. Thanks to her popularity with all sections of Ethiopian society, she continued to play an important role in Ethiopian politics even after her husband’s death in 1478.
She was at court during the reign of Baeda Maryam’s eldest son and was also an important figure during the reign of her husband’s youngest son, Na’od. After his death, she was instrumental in choosing her 12-year-old step-grandson Ləbnä Dəngəl as his successor. Eleni guided the affairs of state as the most influential of the regents until Ləbnä Dəngəl came of age, as stated by Rita Pankhurst.
Despite losing political power by the 1520s, Eleni continued to be an influential person at court until her death in April 1522. When news of her death broke, Portuguese explorer Francisco Alvares, who was at the court in Ethiopia, wrote:
“They said that since she had died all of them had died, great and small, and that while she lived, all lived and were defended and protected; and she was the father and mother of all.”