The Queen of Sheba: the myth that regenerates with every epoch.
The story of the Queen of Sheba inspired the people of Yemen to tell their own traditional tale. Her tale was recounted in some detail in the Old Testament of the Bible, focusing on her sensational rendezvous with the Prophet Solomon. She was mentioned in the Quran in Surat An-Naml. The Queen also inspired the people of Ethiopia in the Middle Ages through a renewed myth, differing from those told before. Throughout history, they considered the son she bore from Solomon to be the forefather of the Ethiopian kings.
In modern times, the Queen became a source of inspiration for opera, music, theater, and film, with numerous movies, stories, and operettas across the world cultures, from Japan to the US, featuring her tale. In each, the Queen of Sheba manifests herself with a different identity, origin, and tale.
She is the Queen of the African subcontinent, with her distinguished beauty. She is the pride of Yemen’s history. She is the wise Queen, the lover of King Solomon, and the Virgin Mother of his African son. In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy books, she is recognized as a queen.
She has been known under several monikers; in Arab culture, she is Bilqīs; in Christian culture, she is the Queen of the South; and in Ethiopia, she is Makeda. Each culture portrays her in different colors with every age, from ancient times, to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where interest in her story was renewed, up to our day. Annette Yoshiko Reed from Penn University follows her story, which is consulted here.
There appears to be some material evidence on the historical existence of the kingdom of Sheba which confirms the major trade routes between the kingdom and the south of the Levant. However, curiously, the only common denominator between all the accounts is the detail that she is a queen, though there is barely any historical or archeological evidence of her existence, her reign, or even her name.
The oldest mention of the queen was in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings I, where she appears twice. The book recounts that the queen heard of the King Solomon and his wisdom, so she visited him with gifts in a tremendous procession. She carried with her gifts of gemstones, sandalwood, and many valuable gifts.
The Bible states that she was stunned by the opulence of Solomon, as well as his intelligence and wisdom, as Solomon answered all the questions and riddles she tested him with. Her visit, as such, became an opportunity to witness the greatness of the one God that Solomon believed in.
In the Quran, the details of the story vary, albeit with the same message, the queen was invited to worship the one God. In the Quranic text, the roles are reversed. King Solomon hears of the Queen of Sheba and her people from a hoopoe, who is one of his “servants”. Thus, he sends her letters summoning her to visit. The story ends with the conversion of the queen from the prevailing pagan beliefs to this faith.
The Queen of Sheba: the myth that regenerates with every epoch.
The woman who captured the imaginations of every era... the Queen of Sheba.
The story takes on different forms in the exegesis literature, both Judaic and Islamic. In some, the focus shifts: instead of depicting her as a wise, wealthy queen, attention is centered on her beauty and femininity. The encounter between her and King Solomon, at times, changes from an intellectual exchange that reflects the fight against polytheistic practices and calls for the oneness of God, to a story of love and passion, and even of marriage.
The tales of her origin, too, vary. It is said that she is the daughter of the king of Yemen and a jinn; that she succeeded her father as a ruler; while other accounts claim she was a virgin, evidenced by the fact that she had hairy legs, which indicated that she never had sexual relationships; while in the Yemeni traditional version, her hairy legs confirm that she her mother was a jinn. In another tale, the queen marries Solomon.
What these tales have in common is the vibrant descriptions of her palace, her treasures, and her beauty. The imagination surrounding her story survived in glass art, wood art, miniatures in scripts, sculptures, and paintings.
Perhaps the most pronounced interest in the queen comes from the Ethiopian culture, particularly the Christian tradition from and of Ethiopia, where Makeda, the wise, beautiful queen, takes an African identity.
Queen Makeda visits King Solomon and, while still a virgin, mothers his son Menelik, who was adopted as a sacred progenitor by Ethiopian rulers who were later known as the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia.
The queen’s Ethiopian origins confirm her foreignness, and suggest that her land is far from the land of monotheistic religions. Thus, her conversion to the faith exemplifies Christianity’s concern with proselytizing, and spreading its message in the world. The queen’s story, and her encounter with King Solomon, is the fundamental centerpiece of forty chapters of the fourteenth century Ethiopian work The Glory of the Kings (Kebra Nagast).
Letters of the Kings
Although the holy texts that mention the encounter make no mention of the specific riddles with which the queen tests King Solomon’s wisdom, artists from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance portrayed these riddles using their own imagination. And example is this piece from Germany in 1490 or 1500 AD (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art): the Queen testing Solomon’s ability to differentiate between a boy and a girl who look alike, and between two roses she holds in her hand, one of which is real while the other is artificial.
The story of their encounter and the riddles exchange between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon animates a literary genre known in Arabic literature, in which the stories of exchanged correspondences or encounters manifest diplomatic relations between kingdoms. This offers an interesting insight into the characteristics deemed praiseworthy in a ruler at the time, namely, being intelligent and quick-witted. This, in turn, was an area of competition between rulers, and an opportunity to prove their competence, legitimacy, and the righteousness of their religions, their gods, and their divine source of protection.
In Islamic culture, examples of this abound. It sometimes appears in letters with riddles for the recipient to solve, or gifts that test the recipient’s ability to use or understand them.
In this portrait by the artist Juan de la Corte (painted between 1630-1660 in Spain), from the collection of Fundación Banco Santander, we can see the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon dressed in royal garb, accompanied by their entourage. The encounter, which according to the holy texts occurred in King Solomon’s palace, is portrayed at one of Spain’s palaces in the Renaissance, and the outfits of the characters are the outfits of the kings and wealthy men of that age.
The depiction of the Queen, whether real or fictitious, reveals the intersections of different cultures, in which the power of creative imagination goes beyond the text, creates myths which themselves inspire new writings and stories.
Perhaps what particularly captures the imagination in the tale of the Queen of Sheba is the richness and diversity of values she inspires in each version, and the different, and at times contradictory, interpretations of her tale, across the ages.