By Joy Sigaud
These great powerful women of the ancient African continent continue to fascinate and intrigue. Whilst the world became obsessed with the findings and wonders of the pyramids and their contents the thousands of stories of the individual lives of these black people remain largely untaught, filtered and often biased.
Kandake was the royal title for queens and queen mothers of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, which was an ancient Nubian state centred on the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile and the River Atbara in what is now the Republic of Sudan.
The Kingdom was a prosperous land ruled from the capital, Meroe. The Kandakes were also known as Nubian warrior queens, queen regents, and ruling queen mothers. They controlled what are now Ethiopia, Sudan, and parts of Egypt.
Kandake was a Meroitic term for the sister of the king of Kush who would bear the next heir according to the matrilineal succession. It was used as a royal title or dynastic name. It is sometimes translated into English as “Candace”. Some of the queens ruled in their own right; others ruled with their husbands, but these queens were not merely consorts, they usually had equal power with the king and sometimes more. The Kandakes had absolute authority, they ruled and were tasked with creating their sons as rulers. It was not unheard of for a Kandake to order a ruling king to commit suicide in order that he be replaced or even depose a son. Kandakes farmed, traded with Greeks and built pyramids; some were warriors who led their armies into battle.
The Most Famous of the Queens
Shanakdakhete (177 BC–155 BC)
She was the earliest known ruling African queen of ancient Nubia, She was a queen regent of the Kingdom of Kush, when the polity was centred at Meroe. She reigned from circa 170 to 150 BC. It is also stated that as queen she played a significant role in the Meroitic religion.
Even though her family antecedents remain obscure, in one of her carvings on a dorsal pillar she is shown adorned with an insignia of rank on the forehead and a crown, similar to the one worn by the reigning kings with decoration of a sun-disk and tall feathers. She appears in the works of art in some cases along with a smaller man. This man raises his arm from behind her to touch her crown. Some scientists have thought that the man standing behind her was crowned prince and was either her husband or her father, who died before reaching the throne.
Shanakdakhete’s name is engraved as a royal queen in the Egyptian Meroitic hieroglyphs, where they found the oldest hieroglyphic inscriptions. Her pyramid in Meroe is one of the largest pyramids built by the kings of Kush. The pyramid featuring a unique chapel contains two rooms and two columns. Landscapes in the chapel depicting military campaigns to the south show large numbers of livestock and prisoners. The queen’s landscapes appear in the form of a huge obese woman, (all Meroe queens had similar forms) which is a symbol not only aesthetically pleasing, but rather an expression of wealth and power.
Amanirenas (40 BC–10 BC)
In Meroe’s history, Amanirenas, one of the great queens’ royal palace was at Gebel Barkal. She ruled the area between the Nile and the Atbara rivers. Her husband was king “Tritkas” and she was his successor to the throne.
She is one of the most famous kandakes. The term Great Queen was attributed to the meaning of the royal title kandake because of her role in leading Kushite armies against the Romans in a five year long war between 27BC and 22BC.
The Greek geographer Strabo wrote “the queen was very masculine and blind in one eye.” This description is consistent in terms of physical strength of Meroe’s queens that can be seen on the walls of their tombs and temples. Queen Amanirenas is buried at Gebel Barkal in Sudan.
Amanishakheto (10 BC–1 BC):
She was an extremely wealthy, powerful and a great queen that assumed the Meroe throne after the death of “Amanirenas”. It is not known whether she was the sister or the second wife of King “Tritkas”, or if she was the daughter of “Amanirenas”.
Amanishakheto was the most powerful and wealthiest among the rulers of Meroe. There are several monuments of her and she is mentioned in the Amun Temple of Kawa. She built considerable pyramids and temples at “Wad Naqaa”, where she resided and where she was buried with great treasures. There are also inscriptions of a palace there. Inside Amanishakheto’s grave, the Italian treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini, known for raiding and vandalising several pyramids of Meroe, discovered a significant quantity of golden artefacts such as armlets, necklaces and some jewellery, which is now divided between the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and the Museum of Munich. She is often depicted on pyramid murals as a large, powerful woman, covered with jewels, elaborate fringed and tasseled robes, and carrying weapons in one hand, preparing to lead her army against the enemies of the North and South.
Amanitore & Co-regent Natakamani (1–20 AD):
This Queen and Natakamani were the most famous couples in the history of Meroe although it has not been established whether they were husband and wife or whether she was his mother although she was often referred to as co-regent. They created outstanding buildings and her royal palace which was at Gebel Barkal in modern day Sudan is now a Unesco world heritage site. The Pyramid of Amanitore is in modern day Sudan.
Kandakes of Kush
Shanakdakhete (177BCE – 155 BCE)
Amanirenas (40 BCE – 10 BCE)
Amanishakheto (10 BCE- 2 CE)
Amanitore (1-20 CE)
Maleqorobar (266-283 CE)
We wish to thank In the City Sudan who provided much of the information and insight. Main photo Amanitore at Wad ban Naqa courtesy of Sven-Steffen Arndt