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Who Was the Queen of Sheba?

Ethiopian or Yemeni Queen?

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Queen of Sheba Meets King Solomon - Medieval Depiction

Queen of Sheba Meets King Solomon - Medieval Depiction

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Queen of Sheba Facts

Known for: Biblical character, a powerful queen who visited King Solomon
Dates: about the 10th century BCE
Also known as: Bilqis, Balqis, Nicaule, Nakuti, Makeda, Maqueda

Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Scriptures

The Queen of Sheba is one of the most famous figures in the Bible, yet nobody knows exactly who she was or where she came from. According to I Kings 10:1-13 of the Hebrew scriptures, she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem after hearing of his great wisdom. However, the Bible does not mention either her given name or the location of her kingdom.

In Genesis 10:7, in the so-called Table of Nations, two individuals are mentioned who some scholars have connected with the implied place name of the Queen of Sheba. Seba is mentioned as a grandson of Ham's son Noah via Cush, and Sheba is mentioned as a grandson of Cush via Raamah in the same list. Cush or Kush has been associated with the empire of Kush, a land south of Egypt.

Archaeological Evidence?

Two primary strands of history connect to the Queen of Sheba, from opposite sides of the Red Sea. According to Arab and other Islamic sources, the Queen of Sheba was called Bilqis, and ruled over a kingdom on the southern Arabian Peninsula, in what is now Yemen. Ethiopian records, on the other hand, claim that the Queen of Sheba was a monarch called Makeda, who ruled the Axumite Empire, based in northern Ethiopia.

Interestingly enough, archaeological evidence indicates that as early as the tenth century BCE, Ethiopia and Yemen were ruled by a single dynasty, probably based in Yemen. Four centuries later, the two regions were both under the sway of Axum. Since the political and cultural ties between ancient Yemen and Ethiopia seem to have been incredibly strong, it may be that each of these traditions is correct, in a sense. The Queen of Sheba may have reigned over both Ethiopia and Yemen, but of course she couldn't have been born in both places.

Makeba, Ethiopian Queen

Ethiopia's national epic, the Kebra Nagast or "Glory of Kings," tells the story of a queen named Makeda from the city of Axum who traveled to Jerusalem to meet the famous Solomon the Wise. Makeda and her entourage stayed for several months, and Solomon became smitten with the beautiful Ethiopian queen.

As Makeda's visit neared its end, Solomon invited her to stay in the same wing of the castle as his own sleeping quarters. Makeda agreed, so long as Solomon didn't try to make any sexual advances. Solomon acquiesced to this condition, but only if Makeda took nothing that was his. That evening, Solomon ordered a spicy and salty meal prepared. He also had a glass of water set out beside Makeda's bed. When she awoke thirsty in the middle of the night, she drank the water, at which point Solomon came in to the room and announced that Makeda had taken his water. They slept together, and when Makeda left to go back to Ethiopia, she was carrying Solomon's son.

In Ethiopian tradition, Solomon and Sheba's child, Emperor Menelik I, founded the Solomonid dynasty, which continued until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Menelik also went to Jerusalem to meet his father, and either received as a gift or stole the Ark of the Covenant, depending upon the version of the story. Although most Ethiopians today believe that Makeda was the biblical Queen of Sheba, many scholars give preference to a Yemeni origin, instead.

Bilqis, Yemeni Queen

An important component of Yemen's claim on the Queen of Sheba is the name. We know that a great kingdom called Saba existed in Yemen during this period, and historians suggest that Saba is Sheba. Islamic folklore holds that the Sabean queen's name was Bilqis.

According to Sura 27 of the Qu'ran, Bilqis and the people of Saba worshipped the sun as a god rather than adhering to Abrahamic monotheist beliefs. In this account, King Solomon sent her a letter inviting her to worship his God. Bilqis perceived this as a threat, and fearing that the Jewish king would invade her country, was unsure how to respond. She decided to visit Solomon in person to find out more about him and his faith.

In the Qu'ran's version of the story, Solomon enlisted the help of a djinn or genie that transported Bilqis's throne from her castle to Solomon's in the blink of an eye. The Queen of Sheba was so impressed with this feat, as well as Solomon's wisdom, that she decided to convert to his religion.

Unlike the Ethiopian tale, in the Islamic version there is no suggestion that Solomon and Sheba had an intimate relationship. One interesting facet of the Yemeni story is that Bilqis supposedly had goat hooves rather than human feet, either because her mother had eaten a goat while pregnant with her, or because she was herself a djinn.

Conclusion

Unless archaeologists uncover new evidence to support either Ethiopia's or Yemen's claim to the Queen of Sheba, we will likely never know with certainty who she was. Nevertheless, the fantastic folklore that has sprung up surrounding her keeps her alive in the imaginations of people across the Red Sea region, and around the world.

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