WORLD POLITICS: Queen Of Sheba Biography And Profile
The Queen of Sheba – an exotic and mysterious woman of power – is immortalised in the world’s great religious works, among them the Hebrew Bible and the Muslim Koran. She also appears in Turkish and Persian painting, in Kabbalistic treatises, and in medieval Christian mystical works, where she is viewed as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom and a foreteller of the cult of the Holy Cross. In Africa and Arabia her tale is still told to this day and, indeed, her tale has been told and retold in many lands for nearly 3,000 years.
The sources and history of the legend, however, are elusive. Hollywood, too, has fallen under her spell, releasing its own polished epic version of her story in the glossy Solomon and Sheba of 1959. The sources and history of the legend, however, are elusive. No other popular heroine is so celebrated but so puzzling.
Trying to ascertain who she may really have been is an arduous task, and a question soon arises. Why, if so little is known about her, has she become such an important figure? The tales of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have, after all, even provided the founding myths for the modern states of Israel and Ethiopia.
Ancient trade routes in the Middle East and Europe. Among all the famous story-tellers in the world, along with the Celts, the Greeks and the Indians, the Jews have left one of the greatest legacies. The Bible tales were written down in the late Iron Age and into the period of Persian and Greek rule in the Near East (600-200 BC). They have proved amazingly tenacious and enduring – their extraordinary impact on the history of civilisation due mainly to their importance to the three monotheistic religions.
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 just enough hints and clues to be tantalising and mysterious. The ‘precious stones’, ‘spices’ and ‘incense’ that the queen brought as gifts from her homeland must denote a country 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. So could the land of Sheba have been one of those? And what about the name itself? What evidence is there for a land called Sheba?
Unpicking the clues
Ethiopian and Islamic cultures both share the story of the Queen of Sheba There are in fact several people called Sheba in the Bible, one is a descendant of Noah’s son Shem, and another of his son Ham. But it is also referred to as a place. The Book of Ezekiel (27 v.22-24) tells us that the merchants trading with Tyre came from Sheba and Raamah, and brought with them spices, precious stones and gold – the exact same goods that the Queen of Sheba brought with her when she came to visit Solomon in Jerusalem.
And, though historic proof is lacking for the Queen of Sheba herself, there is plenty of textual evidence to support this great kingdom of Saba.
But the most popular translation of the Hebrew word ‘Sheba’ is the Arabic ‘Saba’ – referring to a great kingdom, the Sabaean kingdom, in what is today Yemen. And, though historic proof is lacking for the Queen of Sheba herself, there is plenty of textual evidence to support this great kingdom of Saba. In Assyrian texts, kings by the name of ‘Itamru’ and ‘Karib-ilu’, have been associated with kings of Saba named ‘Yitha’amars’ and ‘Karibil’, in Yemeni texts
The ruins of Marib, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Saba. The Queen of Sheba has been said to have ruled here. Even more interesting are the current excavations of an ancient temple in the old market town of Marib – in the lands thought to have once been part of the ancient kingdom of Saba. The temple is known as the Mahram Bilqis or Temple of Bilqis – and Bilqis is the name given to the Queen of Saba in the later stories in the Islamic tradition. In the Koran, written earlier, the Queen of Saba is nameless. Her story there shares some of the familiar lines of the Bible version, but adds a few of its own.
[Sheba’s] child had one normal foot and one goat’s hoof.
God, we are told, had enabled Solomon to converse with birds and one day noticed that the Lapwing was missing. When the bird returned, she explained that she had been travelling in a foreign land, known as Saba, which was ruled over by a queen who was immensely rich and sat on a throne of gold and silver. Solomon then invited the queen to visit him.
On arrival she entered the palace that he had had specially built for her. The walls and floor of the building were made of glass, and water flowed over the floor. She picked up her skirt to walk over the flood and so revealed her legs, which were covered with hair, like a goat’s.
(A later Arabic tale tells of how the Queen of Sheba came to have a goat’s hoof as a foot. Whilst pregnant, her mother saw a handsome goat which she craved for, ‘after the manner of women who are with child’, and when her own daughter was born, the child had one normal foot and one goat’s hoof.)
Temple of Hatshepsut, whose walls show a 15th-century BC trade mission to the land of ‘Punt’. Historians believe this kingdom was located in what is now Ethiopia. Of all the stories of the Queen of Sheba, those of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa are those that probably retain the most resonance today with the people who tell them. The stories are immortalised in the Ethiopian holy book – the Kebra Nagast – where we find accounts of the queen’s hairy hoof, her trip to Solomon and her seduction. But these tales go further. Here, 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 travelled 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.
The importance of the queen, the Ark of the Covenant and the Kebra Nagast in Ethiopian history cannot be overstated. 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.
Haile Selassie was not, however, the first Emperor to publicly declare the importance of the Kebra Nagast. London’s National Archives contain letters dating from 1872, written by Prince Kasa (later King John IV) of Ethiopia to Queen Victoria, in which he writes (translated):
There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the shums (governors), churches and provinces are in this book. I pray you will find out who has got this book and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.
On Victoria’s permit, the book was returned to Ethiopia, and it is now kept in Raguel Church in Addis Ababa, where a front page inscription explains its history.
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 we do have textual evidence, lists names of ruling kings at the time when Sheba is supposed to have sat on the throne.
But the story must be based on something. If the Bible version was written down centuries after Sheba’s time, as many think, to glorify Israel and the reign of King Solomon, it may represent a time of great expansion, a time when the world was opening up for the very first time. Could Sheba’s embassy to Israel be the reflection of one of the first great trade missions in the world?
Could Sheba’s embassy to Israel be the reflection of one of the first great trade missions in the world
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 and a demon with a cloven hoof. It is perhaps these many strands to her tale that are in the end the real key to her popularity.
– Queen Of Sheba Biography And Profile (BBC)