Queen Candace of Ethiopia (Nubia or Meroe)

Over forty Meroitic kings and queens were buried in pyramids at Meroë.
(Image of Meroitic pyramids sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

Candace of Ethiopia or Kandake of Kush

In his famous Church History, Eusebius mentions Philip the evangelist and the Ethiopian eunuch, and he wrote: “Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman” (2.1.13 cf. Acts 8:27). I found this piece of information intriguing and so I went on a bit of a search to find out if there is some truth in his statement. As it turned out, there is.

Queen Candace of Ethiopia (Kush)There were several female rulers of Ethiopia or, more precisely, Meroë. Meroë was the capital city of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. Kush (also known as Nubia) was often called Ethiopia in the Bible.[1] The region that once belonged to the ancient Kushite kingdom lies mostly in modern-day Sudan, which is situated directly south of Egypt. (Modern-day Ethiopia is still further south.)

Kandake (kendake or kentake), which means “great woman”, was used as a royal title or dynastic name for the queens of Meroë. Kandake is sometimes translated into English as “Candace” (e.g. Acts 8:27). Some of the kandakes ruled in their own right. Others ruled with their husbands: these queens were not merely consorts, they seem to have had equal power with the king. At least one kandake was the ruler while her husband was consort. Furthermore, some kandakes were warrior queens who led their armies into battle.

There were so many ruling and warrior queens that, like Eusebius, several other writers assumed that Meroë was ruled only by women. (Source) Strabo, a geographer and historian (d. 24 AD), Pliny the Elder, a renowned natural philosopher (23–79 AD), Dio Cassius, a Roman consul and historian (155–235 AD), and others refer to a few ruling kandakes in their writings, but today we know of several more.[2] “An impressive series of Nubian warrior queens, queen regents, and queen mothers, known as kentakes . . . are only appearing to the light of history through the ongoing deciphering of the Meroitic script.”[3]

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban writes, “Meroë claims at least ten regnant queens during the 500 year period between 260 BC and 320 AD, and no fewer than six during the 140 period between 60 BC and 80 AD.”[4][5] The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8 may have been in charge of the treasury of Amantitere Kandake, who ruled in 25–41 AD. (Source)

The Meroitic state flourished at the same time as the Ptolemies and the Romans (300 BC–350 AD). There is a legend that in 332 BC one kandake of Meroë pushed back Alexander the Great who was intent on advancing into Kush, so that he and his army had to retreat to Egypt. A more reliable account relates that in 22 AD Caesar Augustus clashed with Meroitic forces who were led by another kandake. He later made a peace treaty with them, one that benefited the Meroites. This treaty lasted for three centuries.

Timothy Kendall describes the appearance of some of the kandakes.

Curiously, in the Roman account [of the peace treaty] it was noted that the Meroitic queen was “a very masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye.”[5] This strange description is given substance by the even stranger portrayals of these ladies that appear in reliefs in their tomb chapels and temples. The successive Candaces Amanishakheto and Amanitore, for example, . . . are depicted as massive, powerful figures, enormously fat, covered with jewels and ornament and elaborate fringed and tasseled robes. Their huge frames tower over their diminutive enemies, whom they are shown grasping brutally by the hair with one hand and dealing the coup de grace with the other. The social and aesthetic implications expressed by these reliefs are very different from those of Egypt, where women preferred to be portrayed as lithe and slim. This attribute, together with the facial scars worn by both the kings and queens of the Meroitic period, were the marks of physical beauty, common to central Africa . . . (Source)

Kush, and nations in other parts of Africa, such as Egypt[6] and the “real” Ethiopia south of Kush,[7] were sometimes ruled by women. These women were formidable rulers and some were effective military leaders. In the Bible, we see a strong women who led Israel. Deborah led Israel in the years 2654–2694, according to the Hebrew calendar, and went into battle (Judges 4:6-9). Queen Salome Alexandra was the reigning queen of Judea in the years 76–67 BC (in the intertestamental period.) Both Deborah and Salome Alexandra were excellent leaders, and the Israelites prospered under their leadership. It seems that women in leadership, even as rulers of nations, is neither a modern invention nor just a recent phenomenon.


[1] In the Bible, “Ethiopia” refers to the region in Africa immediately south of Egypt. Its boundaries have shifted over time, but the northern boundary has always begun at modern-day Aswan. (Numbers 12:1 states that Moses’ second wife came from this region (i.e. Kush). Could she have been a kandake as some suggest?)

[2] Strabo’s account of a “one-eyed kandake” is in his Geography (17.1.54). Dio Cassius in Roman History (54.5) writes that a kandake revolted and waged war against the Romans and was overpowered by Gaius Petronius, the governor of Egypt, in 22 BC. Pliny the Elder tells us in Natural History (6.35) that a queen was ruling Meroë at the time of Nero’s reign. He also writes that “kandake” was the name of the queens in that country, “that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

[3] David E. Jones, Women Warriors: A History (Brasseys: 2000) (source)

[4] Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Nubian Queens in the Nile Valley and Afro-Asiatic Cultural History, a paper presented at the Ninth International Conference for Nubian Studies (August 20-26, 1998) 2. (Source)

[5] The following list of kandakes of Meroë who ruled alone is taken from here. (Cf. the Wikipedia article on the Kandakes of Kush here.)

  • Shanakdakhete (c. 177–155 BC) Earliest known ruling queen. She is shown in reliefs as wearing armor and wielding a spear in battle. Her husband was her consort and not a king.  Her son inherited the throne on her passing.

  • Amanirenas (c. 40–10 BC) In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius, invaded Nubia in response to her attack on southern Egypt, pillaging the north of her territory and razing Napata to the ground (c. 22 BC)

  • Amanishakheto (c. 10 BC–1 AD)  Known for defeating the Roman invasion of Nubia by Roman Caesar Augustus and arranging a favorable peace treaty with Rome. Augustus bragged in his The Deeds of the Divine Augustus that “a penetration was made as far as the town of Napata, which is next to Meroë.”

  • Amanitore (c. 1–20 AD)

  • Amantitere (c. 20–49 AD) Most probably the kandake of Acts 8:27.

  • Amanikhatashan (c. 62–85 AD)

  • Maleqorobar (c. 266–283 AD)

  • Lahideamani (306–314 AD)

[6] Cleopatra VII Philopater (70/69–30 BC) is the best known female pharaoh who ruled Egypt in her own right. Historians know of fifteen women in all who ruled as pharaohs, some of these were co-rulers with their brother-husbands.

[7] In her paper on Nubian Queens, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban writes, “Three of the Ethiopian queens were central to significant turning points in dynastic history: 1) Makeda [Queen of Saba, hence “Sheba”] who founded the Menelik dynasty that ruled until the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974; 2) Queen Ahywa (regal name Sofya), who made Christianity the official religion of the Ethiopian kingdom in 332 A.D.; and 3) Gudit, the Jewish queen who founded the rival Zagwe dynasty, 933–1253 CE until the Amhara Solomonic line was restored (Quirin 1992, 12-19).” (Nubian Queens, 3)  Ethiopians and Yemenies (both are descendents of the Sabians) claim that the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon was their queen. (Nubian Queens, 2) (Source) (Here is a link to an interesting video on the Queen of Sheba.)

Queen Candace of Ethiopia (Kush)

Relief of Amanitore Kandake, who rule c. 1–20 AD, found in Wad ban Naqa, a town of Meroë.
Now housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. (Wikimedia Commons)

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A five minute lecture by Craig Keener, All about the African empire that the official in Acts 8:27 was from, is here.