Eleni of Ethiopia

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Eleni or Helena (died April, 1522) also known as Queen of Zeila[1] was an Empress of Ethiopia by marriage to Zara Yaqob (r. 1434–1468), and served as regent between 1507 and 1516 during the minority of emperor Dawit II. She played a significant role in the government of Ethiopia during her lifetime, acting as de facto co-regent or advisor to a number of emperors; one testimony of this is the manuscript Bruce 88, which states that she had been in the palace of three illustrious Emperors: Zara Yaqob; his son by another wife, Baeda Maryam I (r. 1468–1478), and Na'od (r. 1494–1505).[2]


The daughter of the King of Hadiya, she converted to Christianity upon marrying Zara Yaqob. Although the Portuguese historian Baltasar Teles wrote that she had no children, in some manuscripts of Francisco Álvares's The Prester John of the Indies, a male relative of Lebna Dengel who escaped from Amba Geshen is described as her son, according to the translator but not the original text[3]

With his own mother Tsion Mogasa dead, Emperor Baeda Maryam I gave Eleni the title of Queen Mother. She proved to be an effective member of the royal family; Paul B. Henze comments that she "was practically co-monarch" during his reign.[4] When Eskender succeeded his father Emperor Baeda Maryam I, at first Empress Eleni was pushed out of power by the Bitwoded Amda Mikael. However, around 1486 she participated in a palace coup that led to his deposition and execution, and Queen Eleni thereafter played a leading role in the Emperor's government, which continued into the reign of Emperor Na'od.

Álvares was told by the Abuna Marqos, that upon Emperor Na'od's death in combat "he and Queen Eleni made him [Lebna Dengel] King, because they had all of the great men in their hands"[5] This statement points to the power Eleni wielded. Likewise Eleni, understanding the increasing threat that Ethiopia faced from the growing Ottoman influence in the region, with the counsel of Pero da Covilhã sent Mateus (also known as Matthew the Armenian) as an ambassador to the King of Portugal and the Pope in Rome, a fact that the Portuguese only understood after they arrived in Ethiopia, and which complicated Dom Rodrigo da Lima's mission to the Ethiopian Emperor.[6] Eleni served as chief regent for the under-age Lebna Dengel, along with his mother, the Dowager Empress Na'od Mogassa, and Ras Degelhan of Gojjam, the Emperor's senior male relative.

Álvares also notes that Eleni possessed extensive estates in the province of Gojjam.[7] Others said that "she was accomplished in everything: in front of God by practising righteousness and having strong faith, by praying and receiving Holy Communion; in worldly terms, she was accomplished in preparing food [for the royal table], in familiarity with the books, in knowledge of the law, and in understanding the affairs of state. For these qualities, the King greatly loved our Queen Eléni. He considered her like his own mother’.[8]

The date of Eleni's death is not entirely certain. However, Henze states that she died at an advanced age in the 1520s,[9] and Beckingham and Huntingford confirms this by arguing that the evidence in Álvares account provides enough information to date her death to April, 1522.[10] Álvares makes it clear that she died while he was in Ethiopia, adding that her death was a cause for sorrow by her subjects:

There was a great rumour and talk at the Court about the death of Queen Eleni. They said that since she had died all of them had died great and small, and that while she lived, all lived and were defended and protected; and she was the father and mother of all.[11]


  1. ^ Braukämper, Ulrich (2002). Islamic History and Culture in Southern Ethiopia: Collected Essays. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 61. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  2. ^ Beckingham and Huntingford, translators, The Prester John of the Indies by Francisco Álvares (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961), p. 14 n.3
  3. ^ Francisco Álvares, Prester John, p. 245
  4. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 75
  5. ^ Álvares, Prester John, p. 243
  6. ^ Beckingham and Huntingford, translators, Prester John, p.307; paraphrasing the account of Gaspar Correia. Apparently Álvares never learned this, for in his narrative he repeats without explanation Lebna Dengel's claim that Mattheus lacked the authority to represent him (e.g., p. 283).
  7. ^ Álvares, Prester John, pp. 425, 458.
  8. ^ Jules Perruchon 1893, Les chroniques de Zar’a Yâ‘eqôb et de Ba’eda Mâryâm. Paris: Bouillon, 175-6, as cited in Rita Pankhurst, "Taytu’s Foremothers: Queen Eleni, Queen Säblä Wängel and Bati Dəl Wämbära," Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, edited by Svein Ege, Harald Aspen, Birhanu Teferra and Shiferaw Bekele, 53. Trondheim, Norway: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2009.
  9. ^ Henze, Layers, p. 86 n.8
  10. ^ Beckingham and Huntingford discuss the evidence on p. 425 n.1 of their translation.
  11. ^ Álvares, Prester John, p. 434.