queen of sheba, queen of sheba statue
Jean-Pierre Riocreu
Statue of the Queen of Sheba of
Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims

The Queen of Sheba

December 12, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
She appears in Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred texts, and is known for her journey to Jerusalem to test King Solomon’s wisdom. Did the Queen of Sheba really exist, or is she only a myth? Modern-day historians and archaeologists have different theories.

Queen of Sheba’s Early Days

As the legend goes, the Queen of Sheba—known as Bilquis (or Bilqis) in Arabic and Makeda in Ethiopian—has heard that King Solomon of Israel is a wise man. As a seeker of knowledge and truth, the Queen travels to Jerusalem to test Solomon’s knowledge.

Though the story of the Queen of Sheba has been told for almost 3,000 years, whether she really existed has never been proven. According to Michael Wood, writing for the BBC, she makes her first appearance 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.” (I Kings 10 v.1-13)

Taking into account the gifts that she brought, and her name, “Sheba,” a Hebrew word that translates to the Arabic “Saba,” historians believe that Sheba came from the Sabaean kingdom in what is present-day 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,” Wood writes.

Queen of Sheba’s Notable Accomplishments

According to the story, King Solomon had heard of Sheba and had been told of her strange features: hairy legs and feet that are cloven like goat’s feet. To see if the story is really true, Solomon had a floor of glass built at his court and Sheba, “tricked into thinking it was water, raised her skirts to cross it and revealed that her legs were truly hairy,” Encyclopedia Britannica reports. Some say her legs were transformed and became normal; Britannica says that Solomon ordered “a depilatory for the queen.”

Through riddles and questions, Sheba tests Solomon’s knowledge and finds that he is, indeed, a wise man. In return, Solomon teaches Sheba about his god, Yahweh, and Sheba becomes a follower.

He invites her stay at his palace as a guest. As an unmarried woman, Sheba asks that the king not touch her; he agrees, as long as she doesn’t take any of his possessions. “He has tricked her, however,” PBS’s “In Search of Myths & Heroes,” reports. During the night, she drinks a glass of water and Solomon tells Sheba that she has broken their agreement. “They spend the night together and when she returns home from his kingdom, she is pregnant with a son.”

According to the BBC, Ethiopian tradition continues the story of the Queen of Sheba with more detail. In the Kebra Nagast, the Ethiopian holy book, Sheba returns to Aksum, her capital in northern Ethiopia. Here she gives birth to Solomon’s son, Menelik, meaning “Son of the Wise.” Years later, Menelik travels to Jerusalem to meet his father. When he journeys home, he takes the Ark of the Covenant with him, the story says.

The Old Testament reveals that God ordered Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant, a box made of wood and lined with gold. The Ark is believed to have contained the Ten Commandments and was kept in Jerusalem for centuries. As Catherine Hickley pointed out for in 2008, the Ark, featured in the Indiana Jones movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” disappeared after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in the 6th century. The “ark’s fate isn’t documented in the Bible and it entered the realm of legend,” Hickley wrote.

The Rest of the Story

“Ultimately though, there is no primary evidence, archaeological or textual, for the queen in Ethiopia,” Wood writes for the BBC. Based on the commonly accepted date of Solomon’s reign—10th century B.C.—the ruins at Aksum are “a thousand years too late for a queen contemporary with Solomon,” he points out. And the information available on the Sabaean kingdom mentions only kings at the time of Sheba, not queens on the throne.

The Queen of Sheba’s existence may be in doubt, but there is no doubt about the influence her story has had, particularly on artists. The British Museum presents an online exhibit of art inspired by the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. View pieces that reflect “the great range of her depictions and traditions”: a drawing from Safavid, Iran, a 19th-century watercolor, a 1920s Scottish symbolist work and more.

Even historians and archaeologists continue to search for evidence of the mysterious Queen.

Since 1988, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, president of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, has been excavating at Marib, the site of an ancient temple, in Yemen. Hodgson believes that if the Queen of Sheba existed, she would have worshipped at Mahram Bilqis in Marib, the biggest temple at the time. But Joel Donnet, writing for Frontline in 2002, admitted that “it may be decades before any proof of Sheba’s existence is unearthed from the sand that has piled up for more than a thousand years.”

In 2005, ScienceDaily reported on Lynne Teather, a professor of museum studies at the University of Toronto, and her work to uncover what may have been the gravesite of the Queen of Sheba. “Each year both Muslim and Christian religious pilgrims come to this site in Ike-Eri, Nigeria, to pray and honour the queen of Sheba (also known as Bilikisu Sungbo to those of the Islamic faith) even though Ethiopia maintains that she is actually buried in their country,” Teather told ScienceDaily. “Indigenous knowledge and oral traditions maintain that this is the shrine of the queen.”

In 2008, a team of researchers from the University of Hamburg announced that they had discovered the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Ethiopia. The goal of the research was to uncover how Judaism arrived in Ethiopia in the 10th century B.C., and to find clues about the location of the Ark of the Covenant, Hickley reported.

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