Queen-of-Sheba
artist: Rita Ria Medium: pastel on velour paper

The Queen of Sheba – an exotic and mysterious woman of power – was a monarch of the ancient kingdom of Sheba and is referred to in Yemeni and Ethiopian history, the Bible, the Qur’an, Yoruba customary tradition, and the writings of the Roman historian, Flavius Josephus.

The precise location of her kingdom is unknown – but it is believed to have been in Ethiopia and Yemen.

Ancient References, Ancient Names

To King Solomon of Israel, she was the Queen of Sheba.

In Islamic tradition she was called Bilqis or Balqis by the Arabs, who say she came from the city of Sheba, also called Mareb, in Yemen or Arabia Felix.

The Roman historian Josephus calls her Nicaule.

The Luhya of Kenya call her Nakuti, while the Ethiopian people claim her as Makeda or Maqueda.

She is said to have been born some time in the 10th century BC. Traditionally, her lineage was part of the Ethiopian dynasty established in 1370 BC by Za Besi Angabo, which lasted 350 years; her grandfather and father were the last two rulers of this dynasty.

According to the Kebra Negast her mother was known as Queen Ismeni and in 1005 BC, Makeda’s father appointed her as his successor from his deathbed.

To the early ancient Greeks, Ethiopia referred to an empire that encompassed a vast territory, extending to Arabia, Syria, Armenia and the territory between the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. This is the empire that the Queen of Sheba was said to have reigned over. The Yemenite kingdom of Himyar refers to her in its histories as well.

In the Hebrew Bible, a tradition of the history of nations is preserved in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 10.

In Genesis 10:7 there is a reference to Sheba, the son of Raamah, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, son of Noah.

In Genesis 10:26-29 there is a reference to another person named Sheba, listed along with Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, and a host of others as the descendants of Joktan, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Arphaxad, the descendant of Shem, another son of Noah.

Hebrew Biblical Accounts

The first appearance of the tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon is a short narrative in the Old Testament:

And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.(I Kings 10 v.1-13)

This is a story that so far has proved impossible to verify. But it provides us with hints and clues to a homeland rich in gems and incense trees.

Only a few countries can boast these attributes – countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, and Oman and Yemen in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

Qur’anic and Middle Eastern Accounts

The Qur’an (the central religious text of Islam) mentions the kingdom of the Queen by name (Sheba) in the 34th Chapter. Arab sources name her Balqis, Bilqis or Bilquis.

The Qur’anic narrative, from sura 27 (An-Naml), has Suleiman (Solomon) getting reports from the Hoopoe bird about the kingdom of Saba (Sheba), ruled by a queen whose people worship the sun instead of God. Suleiman (Solomon) sends a letter inviting her to submit fully to the One God, Allah, Lord of the Worlds according to the Islamic text.

The Queen of Sheba is unsure how to respond and asks her advisors for counsel. They reply by reminding her that they are “of great toughness” – in a reference to their willingness to go to war, should she choose to. She replies that she fears if they were to lose, Suleiman may behave as any other king would: ‘entering a country, despoiling it and making the most honorable of its people its lowest’.

She decides to meet with Suleiman in order to find out more.

Suleiman receives her response to meet him and asks if anyone can bring him her throne before she arrives. A jinn under the control of Suleiman proposes that he will bring it before Suleiman rises from his seat.

The queen arrives at his court, is shown her throne and asked: Does your throne look like this? She replied: (It is) as though it were it. When she enters Suleiman’s crystal palace she accepts Abrahamic monotheism and the worship of one God alone, Allah.

Yoruba Tradition

The Yoruba Ijebu clan of Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria, claim that she was actually a noblewoman of theirs known as Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo, which is similar to the name Balqis, mentioned in the Qur’an.

They also assert that a medieval system of walls and ditches, known as the eredo, that was built by their ancestors over the course of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, was a monument to the greatness of this personage, built by her people.

Ethiopian Accounts

The imperial family of Ethiopia claims its origin directly from the offspring of the Queen of Sheba by King Solomon.

An ancient compilation of Ethiopian legends, Kebra Negast (‘the Glory of Kings’), is dated to seven hundred years ago, and relates a history of Makeda and her descendants. In this account King Solomon is said to have seduced the Queen of Sheba and sired her son, Menelik I, who would become the first Emperor of Ethiopia.

The narrative given in the Kebra Negast is that King Solomon invited the Queen of Sheba to a banquet, serving spicy food to induce her thirst, and inviting her to stay in his palace overnight. The Queen asked him to swear that he would not take her by force. He accepted upon the condition that she, in turn, would not take anything from his house by force. The Queen assured that she would not, slightly offended by the implication that she, a rich and powerful monarch, would engage in stealing.

However, as she woke up in the middle of the night, she was very thirsty. Just as she reached for a jar of water placed close to her bed, King Solomon appeared, warning her that she was breaking her oath, water being the most valuable of all material possessions. Thus, while quenching her thirst, she set the king free from his promise, and they spent the night together.

The queen returns to her capital, Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, and months later gives birth to Solomon’s son, who is named Menelik, meaning ‘Son of the Wise’.

The story goes that years later Menelik traveled to Jerusalem to see his father, who greeted him with joy and invited him to remain there to rule after his death. But Menelik refused and decided to return home. Under cover of darkness he left the city – taking with him its most precious relic, the Ark of the Covenant. He took it back to Aksum, where it still resides today, in a specially built treasury in the courtyard of St Mary’s Church.

Through their reading of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians see their country as God’s chosen country, the final resting place that He chose for the Ark – and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there. Thus, Sheba is the mother of their nation, and the kings of the land have divine right to rule because they are directly descended from her. Emperor Haile Selassie even had that fact enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955.

Flavius Josephus

The tradition that the Biblical Queen of Sheba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, in ancient Israel, is supported by the first century AD Roman historian Flavius Josephus – who identified Solomon’s visitor as a “Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia”.

While there are no known traditions of matriarchal rule in Yemen during the early first millennium BC, the earliest inscriptions of the rulers of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea mention queens of very high status, possibly equal to their kings.

Conclusions?

Ultimately though, there is no primary evidence, archaeological or textual, for the queen in Ethiopia.

The impressive ruins at Aksum are a thousand years too late for a queen contemporary with Solomon – at least on his traditional dating to the tenth century BC. And the great Sabaean kingdom in southern Arabia (for which there is textual evidence), lists names of ruling kings – not queens – at the time when Sheba is supposed to have sat on the throne.

Interestingly, there are ancient texts that do talk about powerful queens of northern Arabia in the seventh and eighth century BC – the time that some historians in Israel are tempted to place the historical King Solomon.

As for the queen herself, her history remains an enigma. She was a woman of power, an adoring mother and a mysterious lover – also a founder of nations.

Not a bad set of qualifications.

See you again, I hope.

Peace.

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