Although sometimes dismissed as merely “the Dark Continent”, Africa has a rich history full of skillful and impressive rulers. I am featuring rulers in the sense of monarchs, which is why Hannibal and President Nelson Mandela are not included. Moreover, this list concerns African rulers of great influence not just politically and militarily, but also on popular culture. By calling them the top ten “greatest” rulers, it does not necessarily imply these were good people, but rather people who had a great, as in tremendous, even if in some cases terrible, influence on history and they are…
10. Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. 1787 – c. 22 September 1828)
Shaka Zulu is without any doubt the most recognizable native born kind from South Africa. His efforts to unify the Zulu Kingdom mark him as one of the greatest Zulu kings. He is widely recognized as participating in a military revolution of sorts with regards to weapons and tactics used by Zulu warriors, particularly their effective use of special spears and shields during combat. His legacy is such that he appears as a playable character in video games and as the subject of an epic TV series. Moreover, he is considered by Spike TV as one of histories “deadliest warriors”.
9. King Scorpion II (c. 3100 BC)
The so-called Scorpion King ruled Upper Egypt prior to Egypt unification. Although a man, his name may be derived from that of the scorpion goddess Serket. He is a likely father of Narmer, the first pharaoh of a unified Egypt, and founder of Egypt’s First Dynasty. He has been the subject of televised documentaries and has recently received widespread attention due to an adapted version of his life that started within The Mummy series, but has spun off into a three film series called The Scorpion King. The first film in the series grossed $165,333,180 internationally and was accompanied by considerable merchandising, including action figures of the Scorpion King, a fitting honor for one of the founders of Pharaonic Egypt! Nevertheless, primary sources on this famous king are quite scarce. Only ONE pictorial source that depicts him, an artifact called the Scorpion Macehead, is known to exist. As such, much about the historical figure remains a mystery.
For more information on the real Scorpion King, National Geographic has made available an excellent and free documentary on the man available for viewing on their website at http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/videos/the-scorpion-king/.
8. Haile Selassie I (23 July 1892 – 27 August 1975)
Haile Selassie reigned as Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and Emperor of Ethiopia from 2 November 1930 to 12 September 1974, with a brief, but significant break in that long reign due to an Italian invasion that placed Italy’s king as Ethiopia’s emperor from 9 May 1936 to 5 May 1941. Although Hailie Selassie was ultimately deposed and is thus the last official Emperor of Ethiopia, his renown remains significant. This man who claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is today revered by anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 members of the Rastafari movement as the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate!
7. Nefertiti (ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC)
Nefertiti and her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten are among the most notable pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. She is one of the few pharaohs to feature as one of the popular “HistoryTeachers” songs used by various instructors, especially in North American schools and appears frequently on jewelry and even currency. Her and her husband’s historic claim to fame, however, concerns a religious revolution that they undertook in which they emphasized monotheistic worship of the sun disk, Aten. She may have even ruled in her own right as Neferneferuaten after her husband’s death and before the rise of Tutankhamun, probably Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, but whose historic significance stems from rejecting Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s monotheism in favor of a restoration of polytheism.
6. Askia the Great (ca. 1443 – 1538)
Askia is one of only a handful of African rulers known as “the Great”. He reigned over Songhai as its emperor during its height of power and supported scholars working in Timbuktu. Songhai flourished as the political, military, and culture super-state in Western Africa during his reign, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Niger River. His tomb is currently a world heritage site and books produced by his scholars are critical resources for historians of Medieval Africa.
5. Ramesses II the Great (c. 1303 BC – July or August 1213 BC)
As with Askia, Ramesses is one of the few African-born rulers known as “the Great”. He reigned as Egypt’s pharaoh from 1279 to 1213 BC. During his time on the throne, he fought the epic Battle of Kadesh (c. 1274) against the Hittite Empire. Although both sides claimed victory, the battle is well-known from Ramesses’s account of his campaign. The battle has been the subject of a full episode of the History Channel’s Decisive Battles as well as the subject of a full episode of Battles BC. In addition to his military fame, Ramesses also undertook major building programs, particularly at Abu Simbel, in addition to the creation of a colossal statue of him.
4. Thutmose III
This pharaoh reigned prior to Ramesses from 1479 to 1425 BCE. Known as “the Napoleon of Egypt”, Thutmose’s greatest claim to fame is significant to military history and eschatology. Many readers are probably familiar with the concept of Armageddon being the possible last battle of history to people of some religious persuasions. What you may not know is that Armageddon is to these people the Alpha and Omega of battle locations. To clarify, The Battle of Megiddo (15th century BC), the first recorded battle of history, took place at Armageddon, which is the Greek name for Megiddo. In the historic and military sense, the battle is significant in that Thutmose’s victory a coalition of Canaanites, the King of Kadesh, Megiddo, and Mitanni resulted in perhaps ancient Egypt’s greatest expanse during its imperial phase.
3. Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC)
Her name means “Foremost of Noble Ladies” and she ranks alongside Nefertiti and Cleopatra as Egypt’s three most important queens. She reigned longer than any indigenous female ruler of Egypt and laid the foundations for the successful Egyptian state that her co-ruler and successor Thutmose III inherited. Her reign included both military success and building projects that provided Thutmose III with a stable and prosperous state for his more famous campaigns mentioned above. She also appeared in a Discovery Channel documentary, Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, portrayed by actress Farah Ali Abd El Bar.
2. Mansa Musa I (c. 1280 – c. 1337)
A century before Songhai claimed Timbuktu as its key city, Mali was the dominant empire of which Timbuktu belong. The most important leader of Mali was Mansa Musa. He ruled as King of Kings or Emperor of the Malian Empire, Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, and Conqueror of Ghanat. He is known for his great wealth, as especially seen during his pilgrimage to Mecca, and his influence on Timbuktu. He is one of the few non-Egyptian African leaders to be a playable character in the Civilization video game series.
1. Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator the Great (Late 69 BC – 12 August 30 BC)
Cleopatra is the most notable African ruler to be named “the Great” and a major aspect of modern popular culture. Her life has been depicted in many plays and films produced in Europe and America despite her being an Egyptian pharaoh. Unlike the other women on this list, her descent comes from the Greco-Macedonian armies of Alexander the Great that captured Egypt from the Persian Empire nearly three centuries before her life. Her personality and ambition are legendary. She reportedly was introduced to Julius Caesar by being unrolled from a rug. She so captivated him that they had a son nicknamed Little Caesar. After Julius’s assassination, she allied with Mark Antony and appeared on coins as a goddess (“Thea”), while referring to herself as Nea Isis, thereby suggested she was the resurrected form of the goddess Isis. Anticipating al-Gaddafi’s megalomania by a couple thousand years, she styled herself as Queen of Kings and her son as King of Kings, but unlike al-Gaddafi, Cleopatra had a much more realistic chance of making this lofty claim a reality. Had hers and Antony’s forces defeated their rival Octavian at Actium (31 BC), the history of the entire Mediterranean may have been altered fundamentally with Alexandria, rather than Rome being the great superpower of antiquity. Yet, even though she ultimately failed and her death meant the end of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, her intelligence and cunning in a male-dominated world remain admirable. It is not surprising you can buy Cleopatra action figures.