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Mentewab (circa 1706-June 27, 1773), empress, was de facto ruler of Ethiopia during the reign of her son Emperor Iyasu (q.v.) [reigned 1730-55], and during part of the reign of her grandson, Iyoas [reigned 1755-69].
Her Christian name was Walatta Giyorgis, and her royal name was Berthan Mogasa. But she preferred to be called Mentewab (meaning “Beautiful Queen”). Mentewab originated from a noble family of Qwara, a region to the west of Lake Tana. Her father was Dejazmach Menbar, and her mother, Princess Enkoye, was descended from Emperor Minas (reigned 1559-63). Her maternal grandmother was Princess Yolyana, a lady of great influence, who helped Mentewab in the first years of her career.
Mentewab became associated with Emperor Bakaffa (q.v.) [reigned 1721-30] in about 1722, and in 1723 gave birth to the future Emperor Iyasu II. For two years she lived in Gondar, before being sent to Walqayet, a region in the north, in 1725. She returned two months later to Gondar, but her son was kept in Siré province, in Tegré, until 1730. Mentewab’s position in the last years of Bakaffa’s reign is not clear, but she evidently tried to secure her position against his death by gathering around her a devoted group of relatives. On Bakaffa’s death in September 1730, Iyasu II was easily proclaimed emperor. Two months later, on December 23, the position of Mentewab as co-ruler was officially acknowledged by her being crowned empress, an arrangement which remained unchanged until Iyasu’s death.
Mentewab ruled with the assistance of her family, who were called the Qwaranna. The nobility suspected her relatives, and there were several minor conspiracies which culminated in a great revolt in December 1732. The empress and Iyasu, surrounded in their Gondar castle, resisted desperately for more than two weeks, until they were rescued. Thereafter, until Iyasu’s death, Mentewab’s rule was never seriously challenged.
Mentewab and her son followed a policy of conciliation, and their reign was characterized by relative peace and stability. The empress made appointments to the central government, but the distant provinces were left alone, and acquired greater independence. During this reign, there was stability in the southern part of the empire, and virtually no expeditions were sent in this direction. Although the drive of the Galla to the north was halted, no attempt was made to recover the lost districts of the empire. Furthermore, the expeditions undertaken by Iyasu to the north were hunting and raiding parties intended to divert the energies of the growing prince rather than activities with political aims.
The only significant event of the second part of Mentewab’s reign was the rise and rebellion of Ras Mikael Sehul (q.v.) in 1747. Although defeated, Mikael was soon restored to favor, and retained his province of Tegré, to which he added Semén. Through gifts to the empress and the court at Gondar, Mikael skillfully consolidated his position. When Iyasu died, he became the most powerful man in the empire.
Upon the death of Iyasu II in June 1755, Mentewab established a new regency for her grandson Iyoas. The Qwaranna naturally occupied the best posts, and this led to competition with the influential Galla relatives of Iyoas. In 1767 there was a civil war in the course of which both parties lost some power, which gave Mikael Sehul the opportunity to gain complete control of the empire. In 1770 Mentewab, who opposed Mikael Sehul, escaped to Gojam, but she returned to Gondar again in 1771. She lived in her palace at Qusqwam, 2 mi (3 km) northwest of Gondar, intriguing behind the scenes, but powerlessly watching the disintegration of the empire and the humiliation of her family. She died on June 27, 1773.
Enlightened and liberal, she was successful in her church policy of reconciliation between the followers of the two main competing monastic orders, and her reign was characterized by religious peace. A great builder of churches, she saw her church of Abuna Eweatatewos (“Bishop Eustatius”) dedicated in July 1737. But the most important of her buildings was the complex of palace and church at Qusqwam, begun in 1731 and consecrated in 1740. She also owned a villa on Daga Island on Lake Tana, where she built a church dedicated to St. Estifanos (St. Stephen) in 1747. She encouraged the production of illuminated manuscripts and paintings, and, with her son, Iyasu, protected the Greek and Syrian workers who decorated the imperial palaces. Her period was noticed for the impressive development of the arts.
After Bakaffa’s death she is said to have “descended to a variety of attachments of short duration,” and then married Gerazmach Iyasu, by whom she had three daughters, the Princesses Aster, Aletash, and Walatta-Esrael. James Bruce (q.v.), the Scota traveller who visited Ethiopia from 1770-72, and to whom Mentewab was friendly, states, however, that her second husband was named Dajazmach Machu of Qwara.
James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, 3rd ed., 8 vols, Edinburgh, 1813.
I. Guidi, Annales regum ‘Iyasu II et ‘Iyo’as (“Annals of the Reigns of Iyasu II and Iyoas”), Paris, 1910.
H. Weld Blundell, The Royal Chronicle of Abyssinia, 1769-1840, Cambridge, 1922.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.