The Queen of Sheba crosses time, religion and form. Not bad for someone who might not have existed.
As told in the Book of Kings in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the story goes that in the 10th century BCE the Queen of Sheba, having heard many stories about the wisdom of Israel’s famous King Solomon, travelled to Jerusalem to meet him to see for herself whether the tales were true. She brought with her gold, precious stones and an abundance of exotic spices and incense as gifts for the great king. When she tested Solomon with some curly questions, he answered correctly and the queen was duly impressed, apparently remarking that Solomon’s wisdom and prosperity surpassed anything she’d ever heard. In the biblical account, the queen, who is never given a name, packs up and returns to Sheba and that’s an end to it.
There are, however, later accounts that have expanded upon the biblical record and they make for fascinating reading. First off, the location of Sheba is something of a moot point. Based on a medieval document called the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians have long claimed that Sheba was part of their territory and that the queen, whose name was Makeda, had during her visit to Jerusalem, enjoyed a brief liaison with Solomon that resulted in a son, Menelik.
The stories say that Menelik grew up in Sheba; as a young man he went to Jerusalem to meet his father and converted to Judaism. Although Solomon begged Menelik to stay in Israel, he decided to return to Sheba and when he left, took with him the Ark of the Covenant (which holds the Ten Commandments), where Ethiopians believe it remains to this day – kept in a chapel in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in the northern Ethiopian city of Aksum, the city where the Queen of Sheba is said to have lived following her return from Israel. Ethiopians still believe theirs is God’s chosen country because it is where the Ark is kept, and that their sovereigns have a divine right to rule because they’re all descendants of the Queen of Sheba’s son Menelik who became Ethiopia’s first emperor.
But just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia on the southern Arabian Peninsula is modern-day Yemen, site of the ancient land of Saba – the most common translation of the Hebrew word “Sheba” is “Saba” – a pre-Islamic kingdom ruled over by Queen Bilqīs.
According to the Qu’ran, Solomon had the ability to converse with birds, one of which told him that in his travels he’d visited the rich land of Saba and seen its beautiful queen. So Solomon commanded her to appear before him otherwise he’d send demons and djinns to take her lands. He apparently wanted to convert her to the one true faith. Solomon had been told that Bilqīs was herself a djinn with hairy legs and hooves instead of feet. To discover whether this was true, he installed a glass floor to make Bilqīs think she was walking in water thus making her raise her dress to keep it dry. He is said to have told her that her hairy legs marred her beauty. Despite this slight, Bilqīs was so astonished with Solomon’s power, wisdom and grace that she agreed to convert to his religion.
Whether the Queen of Sheba was Makeda or Bilqīs or someone else will never truly be established, but it seems that she was an independent woman ruling a prosperous kingdom – that is, if she existed at all.
There are also references to Sheba in Jewish literature other than the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the Targum Sheni, a collection of lessons on the Book of Esther written in Aramaic, contains a similar story about Solomon commanding the Queen of Sheba to visit him in Jerusalem. This account also includes some of the questions the Queen of Sheba supposedly asked of King Solomon. As a female ruler, she relied on wit over strength and posed a number of riddles that demonstrated her intelligence and knowledge of Jewish tradition. Many of the riddles revolved around gender. For example: “Seven depart and nine enter; two offer drink and one drinks”. Solomon answered, “Seven are the days of a woman’s monthly bleed; nine are the months of pregnancy; two offering drinks are a woman’s breasts; the one who drinks is the child”. That Solomon answered to her satisfaction was testament to his legendary wisdom.
The Targum Sheni, however, is an exploration of, and commentary on, biblical stories and as such should probably be interpreted as allegorical, at least insofar as it refers to the Queen of Sheba.
Whether the Queen of Sheba was Makeda or Bilqīs or someone else will never truly be established, but it seems that she was an independent woman ruling a prosperous kingdom – that is, if she existed at all. Some commentators have suggested that her presence in the Hebrew Bible is simply a tool to emphasise Solomon’s sagacity and the greatness of Israel.
Over the centuries, the Queen of Sheba has been portrayed countless times in paintings, musical and cinematic works, but there is no archaeological evidence, no ruined palaces, no statues or inscriptions that substantiate her existence. She is in all likelihood a myth: a magnificent, mysterious, powerful myth.