Candace of Meroe
(3rd century BCE-2nd Century CE)
In the kingdom of Kush (called Ethiopia by classical authors), particularly during the Meroitic period, women played prominent roles in affairs of the state, occupying positions of power and prestige, the natural outgrowth of which was the development of a line of queens. Unlike the queens of Egypt who derived power from their husbands, the Queens of Kush were independent rulers, to the extent that it was often thought that Meroe never had a king. Four of these queens—Amanerinas, Amanishakhete, Nawidemak and Maleqereabar—became distinctively known as Candaces, a corruption of the word Kentake.
The word is a transcription of the Meroitic ktke or kdke, which means "queen mother. " All royal consorts were by definition Kdkes. The queen mother played two important roles, which ensured the line of succession and also consolidated her power. She played a prominent role in the choice and coronation of the new king and, unique to Meroitic society, she officially adopted her daughter-in-law. Basically, some of the traits of the matriarchs of Meroe correspond to those of the queen mother in matrilineal societies in other parts of Africa.
What little is known of the Candaces was learned primarily from Roman sources and more recently from excavations, iconography, and inscriptions on monuments. Classical writers have attested to their power and leadership. One of them is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (8:28-39) where, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip converted "an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury..." Pliny, who provided valuable details of the great city of Meroe, which have been borne out by subsequent excavations, states that, "The queens of the country bore the name Candace, a title that had passed from queen to queen for many years."
The Candaces have repeatedly appeared in the writings of classical authors. Pseudo-Callisthenes recounted that Alexander visited Candace, Queen of Meroe. Legend has it that she would not let him enter Ethiopia and warned him not to despise them because they were black for "We are whiter and brighter in our souls than the whitest of you." Strabo, in his report of the military clash between the Romans and the Ethiopians, describes a Candace, probably Amanerinas, as "a masculine sort of woman, blind in one eye." This incident purportedly brought Kush onto the stage of world history: After Petronius' punitive invasion of Napata, the Candace waited until most of his troops went off to another campaign and attacked the Romans. Petronius returned and a standoff ensued between the two armies until the Ethiopian ambassadors were allowed to negotiate a peace treaty with Augustus Caesar. The tribute exacted from the Meroites was renounced and a border was demarcated between Roman territory and the kingdom of Kush.
We know that, for a period of 1250 years (ending in 350 CE), the kingdom of Kush flourished as a unique civilization which, beneath an Egyptian façade, remained profoundly African; and that the title of Candace existed for 500 years. However, without a concerted effort in archaeology and a breakthrough in deciphering the Meroitic script, the world will never know the true glory of the kingdom of Kush and the magnificence of the Candaces.
Black Women in Antiquity, Ivan Van Sertima (ed.). Transaction Books, 1990.
Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, Frank M. Snowden, Harvard University Press, 1970.
Candace: Warrior Queens of the Kingdom of Kush, Dawn E. Reno, Books for Black Children Incorporated, 1999.
A General History of Africa, Vol. II: Ancient Civilizations of Africa, UNESCO, 1992.
UNESCO Courier, August-September 1979.
Women Leaders in African History, David Sweetman. General Publishing Company, Limited, 1984.
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The World and Africa: Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, W.E.B. DuBois. International Publishers Company, 1979.
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