Candace of Ethiopia, Kush

Forty generations of Kushite royalty are buried in pyramids at Meroë, the capital city of Kush. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Candace of Ethiopia, or Kandake of Kush

In his famous Church History, Eusebius mentions the biblical account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and writes: “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 turns out, there is.

Queen Candace of Ethiopia (Kush)There were several female rulers of Ethiopia, or Kush. (The ancient Kingdom of Kush, also known as Nubia, is often called Ethiopia in the Bible.)[1] The region that once belonged to the 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, the capital of Kush.[2] Some 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 her consort. Furthermore, some of these kandakes were warrior queens who led their armies into battle.

There were so many ruling queens that, like Eusebius, several other writers assumed that Meroë was ruled mainly by women. Strabo, a geographer and historian (d. 24 CE), Pliny the Elder, a renowned natural philosopher (23–79 CE), Dio Cassius, a Roman consul and historian (155–235 CE), and others refer to some ruling kandakes in their writings,[3] but today we know of several more.

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-year period between 60 BC and 80 AD.”[4] The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8 may have been in charge of the treasury of the kandake Amantitere who ruled in 25–41 CE.[5]

The Meroitic state flourished at around the same time as the Greek Ptolemies and then the Romans (300 BCE–350 CE). There is a legend that in 332 BCE 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 credible story is that Meroitic forces, led by the kandake Amanirenas, clashed with Roman forces in the first century BCE. In his Roman History (54.5), Dio Cassius provides an account of Amanirenas who revolted and waged war against the Romans but was eventually overpowered in 22 BCE by Gaius Petronius, the Roman prefect (or governor) of Egypt. Even though the Kushites were overpowered, Rome made a peace treaty in 22 BCE that benefited the Meroites. This treaty lasted for three centuries.

Timothy Kendall, an archaeologist and expert in Nubian studies, describes the appearance of Amanirenas and some other kandakes.

Curiously, in the Roman account [of the peace treaty] it was noted that the Meroitic queen [Amanirenas] was “a very masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye.” 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 ornaments and elaborate fringed and tasselled 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 . . . [6]

Kush, and other African nations such as Egypt[7] and the “real” Ethiopia south of Kush,[8] were sometimes ruled by women. These women were formidable rulers and some were effective military leaders. In the Bible, we see a strong woman, Deborah, who led Israel and went into battle (Judges 4:6-9). Salome Alexandra was the reigning queen of Judea in the years 76–67 BCE (in the intertestamental period.) Both Deborah and Salome Alexandra were excellent leaders and the Israelites and Judeans, respectively, 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.


Endnotes

[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] “Kandake” is sometimes Latinised as “Candace”.

[3] Strabo gives an account of the “one-eyed kandake” Amanirenas in his Geography (17.1.54). Dio Cassius, in Roman History (54.5), also gives an account of Amanirenas. Pliny the Elder tells us in Natural History (6.35) that a queen was ruling Meroë at the time of Nero’s reign. Pliny also writes that “kandake” was the name, or title, of the queens in that country, “that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

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

  • Shanakdakhete (c. 177–155 BCE)

  • Amanirenas (c. 40–10 BCE) fought against the Romans

  • Amanishakheto (c. 10 BCE–1 CE)

  • Amanitore (c. 1–20 CE)

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

  • Amanikhatashan (c. 62–85 CE)

  • Maleqorobar (c. 266–283 CE)

  • Lahideamani (306–314 CE)

[5] Meroë was famous for its production of iron and was especially prosperous in the first century CE. (Source)

[6] The source of this quotation is no longer available online, and I am unable to locate the paper or book the quotation comes from.

[7] Cleopatra VII Philopater (70/69–30 BCE) 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.

[8] 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 AD until the Amhara Solomonic line was restored (Quirin 1992: 12-19).” (Nubian Queens, 3)
Ethiopians and Yemenis (both are descendants of the Sabians) claim that the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon was their queen. (Nubian Queens, 2) (Here is a link to an interesting video on the Queen of Sheba. And here is a short article about the queen of Sheba in the Bible.)

Queen Candace of Ethiopia (Kush)

Relief of Amanitore Kandake, who ruled c. 1–20 CE, found in Wad ban Naqa, a town of Meroë. (Wikimedia Commons)


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Three Obscure Old Testament Women with Clout
What’s in a name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth
Deborah and the “no available men” argument
Philip’s Prophesying Daughters

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