The Queen of Sheba

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Podcast Transcript

All three of the holy books from great monotheistic faiths share a similar story about a Queen from a land in the south who traveled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon. 

This queen, who is said to have come from a land called Sheba, held not only the fascination of Solomon but of people for almost 3000 years.

But did she really exist, and if she did, where exactly did she come from?

Learn more about the Queen of Sheba on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the Queen of Sheba can be found in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, with references to it in the New Testament, and the Islamic Quran, although the story can differ slightly.

Before I get into the history of the Queen and her kingdom, I should probably at least give a brief overview of the religious stories. 

In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba is never given an actual name. She is simply referred to as the Queen of Sheba. 

The actual text in the Old Testament isn’t that long, so I’ll read an abbreviated version of it from the Book of Kings here:

Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with difficult questions. She arrived in Jerusalem with a very large caravan—with camels bearing spices, gold in great abundance, and precious stones.

So she came to Solomon and spoke to him all that was on her mind. And Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for the king to explain.

When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, the palace he had built, the food at his table, the seating of his servants, the service and attire of his attendants and cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he presented at the house of the LORD, it took her breath away.

She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your words and wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told to me. Your wisdom and prosperity have far exceeded the report I heard. How blessed are your men! How blessed are these servants of yours who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, He has made you king to carry out justice and righteousness.”

Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again was such an abundance of spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.

King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired—whatever she asked—besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned to her own country, along with her servants.

She is referenced again in the New Testament in the Books of Matthew and Luke simply as the “Queen of the South”. 

In the Quran, the story is slightly different. For starters, she has a name, Queen Bilquis. 

Second, it wasn’t the Queen who heard about Solomon, it was Solomon who heard about the Queen. The Queen was a pagan who worshiped the sun and Solomon invited her to Jerusalem to convert.  

She sent ambassadors to Solomon with gifts, who rejected them. She then came to Jerusalem herself and encountered a floor made of glass. The Quran states,

She was told: “Enter the palace.” But when she saw it, she thought it was a pool of water and she bared both her calves (to enter into it). Solomon said: “This is a slippery floor of crystal.” Thereupon she cried out: “My Lord, I have been inflicting much wrong on myself. Now I submit myself with Solomon to Allah, the Lord of the whole Universe.”

These religious texts are not the only mentions of the Queen of Sheba. 

The Yorba people in Nigeria claim she was one of their who was a childless noblewoman. 

There is a non-canonical Jewish text called the Targum Sheni, which is a longer, more embellished telling of the Book of Ester which goes into more detail about the queen, including retelling the story of the glass floor found in the Quran. 

There are writings from Egyptian Coptic texts which speak of Queen Yesaba from the Kingdom of Kush who visits Solomon. Kush is generally referred to as a kingdom that lay to the south of Egypt along the Nile River, usually in what is today the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.

So, there are a bunch of stories from different cultures, in roughly the same region, that speak of a queen who made the trip to visit Jerusalem. 

The first thing we need to look at is if in fact there was a kingdom called Sheba. 

Technically, the answer is no, but that is probably more an issue of translation and pronunciation. There was a kingdom from this period that fits the bill called Saba. 

The Kingdom of Saba was located in what is today Ethiopia and Yemen. Coptics, if you can remember, called her Queen Yesaba. 

The early first-century Jewish historian Josephus said that she was the Queen of Saba which was located in Aetheopia, which was the Latin word for the Horn of Africa. 

Saba was also referred to in many medieval and renaissance images which reference the Queen. 

So, it is pretty probable that Sheba was referring to Saba, with it being called Seba, as an intermediate step.

The Kingdom of Saba existed around the 8th century BC, and there is archeological evidence of its existence. 

It actually existed on both sides of the Red Sea. Part of the kingdom was in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea and the other part was in modern-day Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. 

There are actually debates as to if Saba was in Ethiopia or Yemen, but the truth is that it isn’t an either or question. Like the Axum Empire which came after it, there was a great deal of commerce and contact between the two sides of the Red Sea. They are very close together at this point with the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait being only 20 miles or 32 kilometers across at its most narrow point.

Saba was by all accounts a rich kingdom. If you remember back to my episode on frankincense and myrrh, these products were grown in the very areas that Saba encompassed, and they were in high demand. On top of that, it was in a prime location to trade other goods from both India and the East Coast of Africa. 

So, at least at first glance, Saba checks out as being Sheba. 

There is, however, one thing that I haven’t mentioned yet. In addition to all of the references to the Queen of Sheba I said before, there is one country in particular that places the Queen of Sheba at the center of the national mythology: Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s national epic is called the Kebra Nagast, which translated means the “Glory of Kings”.

The Kebra Nagast dates back at least 700 years and it gives the complete genealogy of the Solomonic Dynasty, which was the ruling family of the Ethiopian Empire. 

In the Kebra Nagast there is a much longer and more complete telling of the Queen of Sheba story. 

For starters, in the story, she has a name. Her name is Queen Makeda. 

A merchant from her kingdom named Tamrin went to Jerusalem and returned to Ethiopia and told her of the wonders he saw, so she decided to go see herself.

When she arrived she got along great with Solomon. They would engage in conversations and have debates and both proved themselves to be very wise. 

Solomon showered her with gifts, and she agreed to convert to Judaism. 

The last evening she was in Jerusalem, Solomon offered to let her stay in his palace. He promised that no harm would come to her, and in return, she promised not to take anything of his. 

That evening a very spicy meal was prepared. When Makeda retired for the evening, a glass of water was placed next to her bed. When she woke to drink the water, Solomon was there (creepy I know) and told her of her vow not to take anything of his. 

She was so desperate to have a drink of water, that she let Solomon have her way with her. 

The next day when she left, Solomon gave her a special ring as a token of faith.

When Makeda returned to Ethiopia, she had a son named Menilek, who became known as Menilek I, the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. 

Menilek later returned to Jerusalem to meet his father, and he brought the ring with him to prove his identity. Solomon warmly welcomed his son and encouraged him to stay. However, Menilek returned to Ethiopia, and Solomon had the firstborn sons of many of his nobles return with him. 

Unbeknownst to Menilek, when they left, the firstborn children who were sent back with him, stole the Ark of the Covenant, and brought it to Ethiopia. 

According to the Kebra Nagast, Queen Makeda reigned for 50 years. 

So, is the story in the Kebra Nagast true? 

If you remember back to my episode on the Ark of the Covenant, Ethiopia is the only place that claims to have the ark, and the ark is one of the central tenets of the Ethiopian Coptic Church. There is a rather small building in the Axum which claims to have the ark.

In addition to this, there is and always has been a small community of Jews in Ethiopia. They actually hold very ancient traditions such as animal sacrifice, which had been long since abandoned by modern Judaism. 

Neither of these things can prove the story, but they do, I think, provide corroborating evidence to support it. 

There has been some archeological evidence that has come to light. In 2008, a German team of archeologists from the University of Hamburg claimed to have discovered the Palace of the Queen of Sheba in Axum. 

There are also sites that have claimed association with the Queen in Dhofar, Oman, and Aden, Yemen. However, it is very difficult to actually make a firm association. 

The is a great deal of debate amongst historians and archeologists as to if the Queen of Sheba actually existed, and if she existed where she lived. 

It is difficult to prove the existence of anyone who lived almost 3,000 years ago. However, it is also hard to explain away all the stories about her from so many different cultures. 

Personally, I think there has to be some kernel of truth to the story. I’m of the opinion that most ancient stories have some sort of factual basis, even if those stories are embellished and change over time.

Regardless of what the historians think, the fact remains that the Queen of Sheba has remained a powerful symbol for Ethiopia, women, and even all of Africa for almost 3,000 years. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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