Ancient Kings & Queens of Africa

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Ancient African kingdoms such as Egypt and Ethiopia produced powerful and legendary rulers, both male and female, including Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten, and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and her son Menelik I. Read this lesson to learn about these ancient African rulers.

Legendary Rulers

The continent of Africa is home to some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, including the famous kingdoms of Egypt as well as the kingdom of Ethiopia, which was supposedly ruled by the same family for nearly 3000 years.

However, many of these civilizations are so old, and written records are so hard to come by, that it is hard to distinguish fact from legend. A legend is a story that has been passed down, often orally, about a civilization's history, battles, and heroes which often mixes actual history with embellished or entirely fictional stories. But legends still tell us a lot about a culture, so they are worth studying even if we cannot entirely verify their truth.

Two pairs of African kings and queens that illustrate this mixture of fact and legend are Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten, legendary rulers of Egypt, and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and her son Menelik I, who supposedly founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for 3000 years.

Nefertiti and Akhenaten

Akhenaten is an Egyptian pharaoh, or divinely-appointed ruler, who ruled during the 14th century. His reign is notable for his attempt to reform Egyptian religion, moving away from the worship of many gods, known as polytheism, and toward the worship of a single deity, Aten, who was elevated to a status above the other gods. Scholars have pointed out that this in some ways was an early version of monotheism, meaning the worship of one god, which was later practiced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. After the death of Akhenaten, however, the regular religious practice was restored and he was discredited by later rulers for many hundreds of years.

Akhenaten's glamorous wife Nefertiti is best remembered now for a famous bust of her head that was discovered in the early 20th century. Though little is known about her, her captivating image in the bust and other art works has led to the circulation of many legends, including the idea that she ruled briefly on her own after Akhenaten's death, though there is little evidence to support this.

Bust of Nefertiti

Makeda and Menelik I

Another legendary African queen which we know little for sure about is Makeda, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian legend says that Makeda lived around 1000 BCE and became queen of the Ethiopian city of Axum after defeating a monstrous serpent. Ethiopian tradition also holds that Makeda is the queen known as the Queen of Sheba in the Bible.

In the Biblical Book of I Kings, the story is told of King Solomon, ruler of the Hebrew tribes of Judea, in the modern Middle East, being visited by a masculine-looking African queen. The Queen learns from the wise King Solomon and becomes his lover. She then returns to her kingdom. Ethiopian tradition credits Makeda with introducing monotheism after her return from her visit to Solomon.

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