The story of the Queen of Sheba appears in religious texts sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Described in the Bible as simply a Queen of the East, in the Qur’an as Bilqis or Balqis, in Ethiopian (ancient Abbysinia) as Makeda or Maqueda, modern scholars believe she came from the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Saba in Yemen, or both. Their main clue is that she brought bales of incense with her as a gift; frankincense only grows in these two areas. Both countries claim her as theirs. Given that they are separated by only 25 kilometers of water, both could be right. I might remind you that King Solomon was the child of King David and Bathsheba, interesting coincidence, that “Sheba” name.
This is without a doubt the best known painting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Sir Edward John Poynter. There is a watercolor prep drawing in the British museum but it lacks the subtlety of the final painting. The setting is the great reception hall in the palace of King Solomon, which the critics unanimously applauded as a tour-de-force of learned architectural reconstruction. Assyrian and Persian discoveries provided Poynter with a great deal of material with which to work on decorative details and furnishings. The lions were copied from examples in the collections of the British Museum, as were Egyptian musical instruments and the dozens of plates, cups, bowls.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the unnamed queen of the land of Sheba heard of the great wisdom of King Solomon of Israel and journeyed there on camels with gifts of spices, gold, precious stones and beautiful wood and to test him with questions, as recorded in First Kings 10:1-13.
When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, the house which he had built, the food on his table, the courtiers sitting round him, and his attendants standing behind in their livery, his cupbearers, and the whole-offerings which he used to offer in the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit left in her. Then she said to the king, ‘The report which I heard in my own country about you and your wisdom was true, but I did not believe it until I came and saw for myself. Then she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones. Never again came such a quantity of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon. And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land, with her servants.
Since Saba or Sheba was a trading empire, this description sounds to me and others like a simple trade mission, especially since the desert spice route went from Yemen to Israel. That was a lot of gold though, it works out to about four and a half tons of gold.
In the Surah Al-Naml (The Ants), the 27th sura of the Qur’an, the story of Solomon is more detailed. It is said that Solomon had converted Bilqis to the true religion after a hoopoe reported to him that she is a Sun-worshipping queen. The name of the surah is taken from the ants whose conversations were understood by Solomon. 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 kingdom of Sheba is mentioned by name. When she enters his crystal palace she accepts Abrahamic monotheism and the worship of one God alone, Allah.
The drawing above depicts an important moment in the Quranic tradition (Sura 27:15-44) when the hoopoe bird delivers a letter from Solomon to the Queen of Sheba who is named in this literature as Bilqis (although she remains anonymous in the Quran). In the Quran Solomon is regarded as not only a great and wealthy king with power over birds, animals and jinn (magical beings), but also a prophet of God. Believing that the queen worshipped the sun instead of God, Solomon wrote to the Queen: “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Do not exalt yourselves above me, but come to me in all submission” (Sura 27:30-31). In this drawing Bilqis reclines beside a stream while gazing at the hoopoe which has just landed on the tree stump at the right, holding in its beak a rolled letter from its master, Solomon. Bilqis is shown wearing a remarkable robe which incorporates representations of a hoopoe and other birds and animals, and thus perhaps an allusion to her own potential mastery of these species.
According to the Ethiopian legend, best represented in the Kebra Negest, the Queen of Sheba was tricked by King Solomon into sleeping with him. The following day as the Queen and her entourage prepared to leave Israel, the King placed a ring on her hand and stated, “If you have a son, give this to him and send him to me.” After returning to the land of Sheba, Queen Makeda did indeed have a son, whom she named Son-of-the-wise-man (Ebn Melek) and reared him as a prince and her heir apparent to the throne.
Upon reaching adulthood, the young man wished to visit his father, so the Queen sent a message to Solomon to anoint their son as king of Ethiopia and to mandate that thenceforth only the males descended from their son should rule Sheba. Solomon and the Jewish people rejoiced when his son arrived in Israel. The king anointed him as the Queen had requested and renamed him Menelik, meaning “how handsome he is”. Menelik returned to Sheba and, according to tradition, ruled wisely and well. He is alleged to have ruled around 950 BC, according to traditional sources.
The story goes that Menelik took the Ark of the Covenant with him to Ethiopia. The small building shown above is the Chapel of the Tablet in Ethiopia which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant, guarded today by a single elderly monk named Abba Tesfa Mariam. It has a tarp on the roof since the roof is leaking and they are building a new home for the ark. According to the Kebra Nagast, King Solomon had intended on sending one son of each of his nobles and one son of each temple priest with Menelik upon his return to his mother’s kingdom. He is supposed to have had sent the Ark to take with them. Upon the death of Queen Makeda, Menelik assumed the throne with the new title of Emperor and King of Kings of Ethiopia.
The combination of gold, frankincense and myrrh has not been lost on Christianity. The Queen of Sheba’s chastity has been depicted as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary, and the three gifts that she brought, gold, frankincense and myrrh have been seen as analogous to the gifts of the Magi. The latter is emphasized as being consistent with a passage from Isaiah 60:6; And they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring forth gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.
So now, after these description of the stories surrounding the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, we are left to consider who the Queen of Sheba might be and where the land of Sheba might be located. I have a few names to consider.
Although Arwa al-Sulayhi was Queen of Yemen from 1067-1138 AD, references to her as the Queen of Sheba are misguided. In 1067, her husband, being too weak to rule, transferred all power to the 19-year old Arwa. When her second husband died in 1101, she did not remarry, and ruled alone for the remainder of her life. Arwa was highly educated in the Quran and the sciences, who encouraged education and cultural arts by building mosques and educational centers around Yemen. This is about 2000 years out of context. There are no other queens in Yemen during the right time period.
Ethiopian Queen of Sheba was said to be born in 1020 BCE in Ophir, and educated in Ethiopia. Her mother was Queen Ismenie, her father was chief minister to Za Sebado, and succeeds him as king. At least five kings precede her. Sheba was known to be beautiful, intelligent, understanding, resourceful, and adventurous. When her father died in 1005 B.C., Sheba became Queen at the age of fifteen. Contradictory legends refer to her as ruling for forty years, and reigning as a virgin queen for six years. In most accounts, she never married. 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. The grandfather was Za Sabado who reigned from 1076 to 1026 B.C.; his wife and Queen Ceres, had only one child, a daughter named Ismenie. This daughter married Prince Kawnasya; when Za Sabado died his son-in-law, Prince Kawnasya became king and reigned from 1026 to 1005 BC.
A third possibility that must be entertained is Nefertiti or one of her children. Nefertiti was the wife of the famous Akhenaten. Nefertiti and her husband were known for a religious revolution, in which they worshiped one god only, Aten, or the sun disc. It is known that they had at least six daughters. During Akhenaten’s reign (and perhaps after), Nefertiti enjoyed unprecedented power. The Coregency Stela may show her as a co-regent with her husband. By the twelfth year of his reign, there is evidence that she may have been elevated to the status of co-regent: equal in status to the pharaoh. The timing is off for Neretiti herself, she lived from 1370 BC – 1330 BC, but according to the description of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, Sheba was the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.
Perhaps the earliest Hebraic people came to the land of Ethiopia during the time of the prolonged drought and famine in Canaan at the time of Abraham. These are ancestors of the Qemant, who worship the Lord in the same manner as Abraham did. They prayed and made sacrifices in selected tree groves and practiced biret mila.
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman” (Num. 12.1)
A second group of Hebraic people arrived in Ethiopia during the 300 years of Israeli bondage in Egypt. According to oral tradition, Ethiopian historians believe that Moses visited Ethiopia as Pharaoh’s emissary on several occasions and eventually married an Ethiopian princess. Could the remnants of Akhenaten’s Aten religion have come with the Jews to Ethiopia, the far south of Egypt, perhaps with one or more of the daughters?
Yemenite Jewish tradition dates the earliest settlement of Jews in the Arabian Peninsula to the time of King Solomon. One explanation is that King Solomon sent Jewish merchant marines to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver with which to adorn the Temple in Jerusalem. However in 1881, the French vice consulate in Yemen wrote to the leaders of the Alliance in France, that he read a book of the Arab historian Abu-Alfada, that the Jews of Yemen settled in the area in 1451 BC. The Sanaite Jews have a legend that their ancestors settled in Yemen forty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple. It is said that under the prophet Jeremiah some 75,000 Jews, including priests and Levites, traveled to Yemen. The Jews of Habban in southern Yemen have a legend that they are the descendants of Judeans who settled in the area before the destruction of the Second Temple. These Judeans supposedly belonged to a brigade dispatched by King Herod to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region.
I am going to stop here with a few observations. Both Ethiopia and Yemen have ancient temples to the sun. Massive irrigation projects were established in Yeman and to a lesser extent in Ethiopia. The impressive dam, built at Ma’rib in the 8th century, provided irrigation for farmland and stood for over a millennium. On the basis of the study of a rock inscription at Ma’rib (“Glaser 1703”) A. G. Lundin and Hermann von Wissmann dated the beginning of Saba’ back into the 12th to the 8th century BCE. Yemeni Semites derived their Musnad script by the 12th to 8th centuries BCE, including a monumental and everyday form. In Ethiopia it evolved later into the Ge’ez alphabet. Finally there is significant genetic linkage between Ethiopians and Egyptian/Levant (link):
“The major find here is that the non-African component of the ancestry of Ethiopians seems to have an affinity to Egyptians and Levantines, more than Yemenis”
I could not close without showing the spectacular Queen of Sheba Orchid, genus Thelymitra, known as ‘sun orchids’ in reference to their habit of only opening in warm weather, found in Australia and New Zealand. The genus name is derived from the Greek words thely (woman) and mitra (mitre hat), referring to elaborate shape of the sterile stamen structure at the top of the column, called a mitra. Australia seems to have a love affair with the Queen of Sheba. I plan further posts to explore the history of Yemen and Ethiopia and their trade routes. Here are some other images of the Queen of Sheba.
Gene Research: http://www.cell.com/AJHG/retrieve/pii/S0002929712002716
Victoria and Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/bronze/
Roads of Arabia, Smithsonian: http://www.roadsofarabia.com/exhibition/index.html
Timeline of Kush: http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsAfrica/AfricaKush.htm
THE SABAEAN INSCRIPTIONS AT ADI KAWEH: http://www.afsaap.org.au/Conferences/2009/Leeman.pdf
Ethiopian Languages: http://www.ethiopiantreasures.co.uk/pages/language.htm
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: http://www.christmasishere.net/gold_frankincense.htm
The Story of Ethiopian Jews: http://www.binacf.org/files/The%20Story%20of%20the%20Ethiopian%20Jews.pdf