Queen of Sheba

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For other uses, see Queen of Sheba (disambiguation).
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba Piero della Francesca
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel

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The Queen of Sheba is a queen regnant who appears in the Bible. The tale of her visit to King Solomon has undergone extensive Jewish, Arabian and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Orient.[1] In Jewish tradition, Sheba was alternately the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia,[2] or a male King of Sheba in South Arabia.[1]


The Queen of Sheba has been an important role model and base for different narratives, works of arts, scientific studies and musical compositions over centuries till the present. The legend has led to different variants of the Chosen people narrative.[3]

Léopold Sédar Senghor's "Elégie pour la Reine de Saba," published in his Elégies majeures in 1976, uses the Queen of Sheba in a love poem and for a political message. Senghor already had put Africa's cultural achievements on the same level as Europe's, seeing them as being part of the same cultural continuum.[4] In the 1970s, he used the Queen of Sheba fable to widen his view of Negritude and Eurafrique by including 'Arab-Berber Africa'.[5]


Queen of Sheba and Solomon, around 1280, window nowadays in Cologne Cathedral

The queen of Sheba (מַֽלְכַּת־שְׁבָׄא, malakat-shaba in the Hebrew Bible, βασίλισσα Σαβὰ in the Septuagint) came to Jerusalem "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones" (I Kings 10:2). "Never again came such an abundance of spices" (10:10; II Chron. 9:1–9) as those which she gave to Solomon. She came "to prove him with hard questions", all of which Solomon answered to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts, after which she returned to her land.[6][2]

The use of the term ḥiddot or "riddles" (I Kings 10:1), an Aramaic loanword whose shape points to a sound shift no earlier than the sixth century B.C., indicates a late origin for the text.[6] Since there is no mention of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.E., Martin Noth has held that the Book of Kings received a definitive redaction around 550 B.C.E.[7]

Virtually all modern scholars agree that Sheba was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, centered around the oasis of Marib, in present-day Yemen. Sheba was quite known in the classical world, and its country was called Arabia Felix.[2] Around the middle of the first millennium B.C., there were Sabaeans also in the Horn of Africa, in the area that later became the realm of Aksum ([[Ethiopia/ Eritrea]]).[8] There are five places in the Bible where the writer distinguishes Sheba (שׁבא), i. e. the Yemenite Sabaeans, from Seba (סבא), i. e. the African Sabaeans. In Ps. 72:10 they are mentioned together: "the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts".[9] This spelling differentiation, however, may be purely factitious.[8]

The alphabetic inscriptions from South Arabia furnish no evidence for women rulers, but Assyrian inscriptions repeatedly mention Arab queens in the north.[10] Queens are well attested in Arabia, though according to Kitchen, not after 690 B.C.E.[6] Furthermore, Sabaean tribes knew the title of mqtwyt (high official). Makada or Makueda, the personal name of the queen in Ethiopian legend, might be interpreted as a popular rendering of the title of mqtwyt.[11]

The queen's visit could have been a trade mission.[2][8] Early South Arabian trade with Mesopotamia involving wood and spices transported by camels is attested in the early ninth century B.C. and may have begun as early as the tenth.[6]

The ancient Sabaic Awwām Temple, known in folklore as Maḥram (the Sanctuary of) Bilqīs, was recently excavated by archaeologists, but no trace of Queen of Sheba has been discovered so far in the many inscriptions found there.[2]


The Queen of Sheba, Prague, Czech Republic

Christian scriptures mention a "queen of the South" (Greek: βασίλισσα νότου, basilissa notou) Latin: Regina austri), who "came from the uttermost parts of the earth", i.e. from the extremities of the then known (Christian) world, to hear the wisdom of Solomon (Mt. 12:42; Lk. 11:31).[12]

The mystical interpretation of the Canticles, which was felt of supplying a literal basis for the speculations of the allegorists, makes its first appearance in Origen, who wrote a voluminous commentary on the Canticles.[13] In his commentary, Origen identified the bride of the Canticles with the "queen of the South" of the Gospels, i. e. the Queen of Sheba, who is assumed to have been Ethiopian.[14] Others have proposed either the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh's daughter, or his marriage with an Israelitish woman, the Shulamite. The former was the favorite opinion of the mystical interpreters to the end of the 18th century; the latter has obtained since its introduction by Good (1803).[13]

The bride of the Canticles is assumed to have been black due to a passage in Cant. 1:5, which the Revised Standard Version (1952) translates as "I am very dark, but comely", as does Jerome (Latin: Nigra sum, sed formosa), while the New Revised Standard Version (1989) has "I am black and beautiful", as the Septuagint (Greek: μέλαινα ἐιμί καί καλή).[15]

Solomon and The Queen of Sheba Giovanni De Min 1789–1859

The legend exists that the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon the self-same gifts which the Magi afterwards brought to Christ.[16]

During the Middle Ages, Christians sometimes identified the queen of Sheba with the sibyl Sabba.[17]

Jewish Aggadah[edit]

According to Josephus (Ant. 8:165–73), the queen of Sheba was the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia, and brought to Israel the first specimens of the balsam, which grew in the Holy Land in the historian's time.[2][18]

The Talmud (Bava Batra 15b) insists that it was not a woman but a king of Sheba (based on varying interpretations of Hebrew mlkt) that came to Jerusalem, obviously intended to discredit existing stories about the relations between Solomon and the Queen.[1]

The most elaborate account of the queen's visit to Salomon is given in the 8th century (?) Targum Sheni to Esther. A hoopoe informed Solomon that the kingdom of Sheba was the only kingdom on earth not subject to him and that its queen was a sun worshiper. He thereupon sent it to Kitor in the land of Sheba with a letter attached to its wing commanding its queen to come to him as a subject. She thereupon sent him all the ships of the sea loaded with precious gifts and 6,000 youths of equal size, all born at the same hour and clothed in purple garments. They carried a letter declaring that she could arrive in Jerusalem within three years although the journey normally took seven years. When the queen arrived and came to Solomon's palace, thinking that the glass floor was a pool of water, she lifted the hem of her dress, uncovering her legs. Solomon informed her of her mistake and reprimanded her for her hairy legs. She asked him three (Targ. Sheni to Esther 1:3) or, according to the Midrash (Prov. ii. 6; Yalḳ. ii., § 1085, Midrash ha-Hefez), other riddles to test his wisdom.[1][6][2][18]

The 11th century (?) Alphabet of Ben Sira avers that Nebuchadnezzar was the fruit of the union between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.[1]

In the Kabbalah, the Queen of Sheba was considered one of the queens of the demons and is sometimes identified with Lilith, first in the Targum of Job (1:15), and later in the Zohar and the subsequent literature. A Jewish and Arab myth maintains that the Queen was actually a jinn, half human and half demon.[19][20]

In Ashkenazi folklore, the figure merged with the popular image of Helen of Troy or the Frau Venus of German mythology. Ashkenazi incantations commonly depict the Queen of Sheba as a seductive dancer. Until recent generations she was popularly pictured as a snatcher of children and a demonic witch.[20]

Beta Israel[edit]

However, Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) refer to the Ethiopian legends of Menelik's return to Ethiopia.[21] Though all the available traditions[22] correspond to recent interpretations, they reflect ancient convictions.[23] Beta Israel are not regarded necessarily as descendants of king Solomon, but as contemporaries of Solomon and Menelik, originating from the kingdom of Israel.[24][24][25][25] The Beta Israel ("Falashas" is both being deemed derogatory and refers to another ethnical group) might have been actually descendants (and converts) of Jews who settled in Egypt after the first exile, and who, upon the fall of the Persian domination (539–333 B.C.E.) on the borders of the Nile, penetrated into the Sudan, whence they went into the western parts of Abyssinia.[26]


Bilqis reclining in a garden, Persian miniature (ca. 1595), tinted drawing on paper
Illustration in a Hafez Frontispiece Depicting Queen Sheba, Walters manuscript W.631, around 1539

In the Quran, the queen is simply the "queen of the south" (XXVII, 27 ff.).[8] The story essentially follows the Bible and other Jewish sources[2] and has various spirits, animals, and other creatures appear as the servants of the Jewish king (XXVII, 34).[18] Solomon commands the Queen of Sheba to come to him as a subject, and, before the queen had arrived, brought her throne with the help of someone who knew the knowledge of the book (Surah-Naml 27:40). According the Quran, the queen recognizes the throne, which had been disguised, and finally accepted the faith of Solomon.

Muslim commentators (Tabari, Zamakhshari, Baydawi) supplement the story at various points. The Queen's name is given as Bilkis, probably derived from Greek παλλακίς or the Hebraised pilegesh, "concubine".

Although the Quran and its commentators have preserved the earliest literary reflection of the complete Bilkis legend, there is little doubt among scholars that the narrative is derived from a Jewish Midrash.[1]

Bible stories of the Queen of Sheba and the ships of Ophir served as a basis for legends about the Israelites traveling in the Queen of Sheba's entourage when she returned to her country to bring up her child by Solomon.[27] There is a Muslim tradition that the first Jews arrived in Yemen at the time of King Solomon, following the politico-economic alliance between him and the Queen of Sheba. However, that tradition is suspected to be an apologetic fabrication of Jews in Yemen later transferred to Islam, just like many other traditions.[2]


The fullest and most significant version of the legend appears in the 14th century (?) Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings), the Ethiopian national saga. Here Menelik I is the child of Solomon and Makeda (the Ethiopic name of Bilkis) from whom the Ethiopian dynasty claims descent to the present day. While the Abyssinian story offers much greater detail, it omits any mention of the Queen's hairy legs or any other element that might reflect on her unfavourably.[1][28] The narrative is that King Solomon invited the Queen of Sheba to a banquet, serving spicy food to induce her thirst, and inviting her to stay in his palace overnight. The Queen asked him to swear that he would not take her by force. He accepted upon the condition that she, in turn, would not take anything from his house by force. The Queen assured him that she would not, slightly offended by the implication that she, a rich and powerful monarch, would engage in stealing. However, as she woke up in the middle of the night, she was very thirsty. Just as she reached for a jar of water placed close to her bed, King Solomon appeared, warning her that she was breaking her oath, water being the most valuable of all material possessions. Thus, while quenching her thirst, she set the king free from his promise and they spent the night together.

According to some sources, Queen Makeda was part of the dynasty originally founded by Za Besi Angabo in 1370 B.C.E., with her grandfather and father being the last male rulers of the royal line. The family's intended choice to rule Aksum was Makeda's brother, Prince Nourad, but his early death led to her succession to the throne. She apparently ruled the Ethiopian kingdom for more than 50 years.[29]

In the Ethiopian Book of Aksum, Makeda is described as establishing a new capital city at Azeba.

Edward Ullendorff holds that Makeda is a corruption of Candace, the name or title of several Ethiopian queens from Meroe or Seba[disambiguation needed]. Candace was the name of that queen of the Ethiopians whose chamberlain was converted to Christianity under the preaching of Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8:27) in 30 C.E. In the 14th century (?) Ethiopic version of the Alexander romance, Alexander the Great of Macedonia (Ethiopic Meqédon) is said to have met a queen Kandake of Nubia.[30]

Historians believe that the Solomonic dynasty actually began in 1270 with the emperor Yekuno Amlak, who, with the support of the Ethiopian Church, overthrew the Zagwe Dynasty, which had ruled Ethiopia since sometime during the 10th century. The link to King Solomon provided a strong foundation for Ethiopian national unity. Despite the fact that the dynasty officially ended in 1769 with Emperor Iyaos, Ethiopian rulers continued to trace their connection to it, right up to the last 20th-century emperor, Haile Selassie.[28]


The Luhya people of Kenya call the Queen of Sheba Nakuti.

The Yoruba Ijebu clan of Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria, claim that she was a noblewoman of theirs known as Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo, which is similar to the name mentioned in the Quran, Balqis. They also assert that a medieval system of walls and ditches, built sometime around the 10th century, was dedicated to her. After excavations in 1999 the archaeologist Patrick Darling was quoted as saying, "I don't want to overplay the Sheba theory, but it cannot be discounted... The local people believe it and that's what is important... The most cogent argument against it at the moment is the dating."[31]

In art[edit]


The treatment of Solomon in literature, art, and music also involves the sub-themes of the Queen of Sheba and the Shulammite of the Song of Songs. King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was not a common subject until the 12th century. In Christian iconography Solomon represented Jesus, and Sheba represented the gentile Church; hence Sheba's meeting with Solomon bearing rich gifts foreshadowed the adoration of the Magi. On the other hand, Sheba enthroned represented the coronation of the virgin.[6]

Sculptures of the Queen of Sheba are found on great Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, and Wells.[6] The 12th century cathedrals at Strasbourg, Chartres, Rochester and Canterbury include artistic renditions in stained glass windows and doorjamb decorations.[32] Likewise of Romanesque art, the enamel depiction of a black woman at Klosterneuburg Monastery.[33] The Queen of Sheba, standing in water before Solomon, is depicted on a window in King's College Chapel, Cambridge.[1]

The explicit sexual content of the Song of Songs and the rather strong female role model of the Queen has sometimes been downplayed and even demonized by reducing her regal power attributes.[34] However there has been no generic depiction of the Queen as being passive or powerless; on the contrary, she was preferably used to show female sovereignty and might.[35] E.g. author Christine de Pizan praised the Queen for secular and religious wisdom in 'The City of Ladies' (1405) and lists her besides Christian and Hebrew prophetesses as first on a list of dignified female pagan.[35]


Florence Baptistry door, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378‒1455), bronze relief

The reception of the queen was a popular subject during the Italian Renaissance. It appears in the bronze doors to the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti, in frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli (Campo Santo, Pisa) and in the Raphael Loggie (Vatican). Examples of Venetian art are by Tintoretto (Prado) and Veronese (Pinacotheca, Turin). In the 17th century, Claude Lorrain painted The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (National Gallery, London).[6]

Piero della Francesca's frescoes in Arezzo (ca. 1466) on the Legend of the True Cross contain two panels on the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. The legend links the beams of Solomon's palace (adored by Queen of Sheba) to the wood of the crucifixion. The Renaissance continuation of the analogy between the Queen's visit to Solomon and the adoration of the Magi is evident in the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch.[36]

Berta Golahny with her sculpture of 'Sheba'.


Boccaccio's On Famous Women (Latin: De Mulieribus Claris) follows Josephus in calling the Queen of Sheba, Nicaula. Boccaccio goes on to explain that not only was she the Queen of Ethiopia and Egypt, but also the queen of Arabia. She also is related to have had a grand palace on "a very large island" called Meroe, located someplace near the Nile river, "practically on the other side of the world." From there Nicaula crossed the deserts of Arabia, through Ethiopia and Egypt and up the coast of the Red Sea, to come to Jerusalem to see "the great King Solomon".[37]

Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies continues the convention of calling the Queen of Sheba, Nicaula. The author praised the Queen for secular and religious wisdom and lists her besides Christian and Hebrew prophetesses as first on a list of dignified female pagan.[35]

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus refers to the Queen of Sheba as Saba, when Mephistopheles is trying to persuade Faustus of the wisdom of the women with whom he supposedly shall be presented every morning.[38]

The legend of the Queen of Sheba has been used as a variant of the Chosen people narrative.[3]

Jill Francis Hudson's novel The Last Queen of Sheba (Lion Publishing 2014) uses the Queen's Ethiopian name, Makeda, and explores her relationship with King Solomon and her possible role in his downfall.


Betty Blythe as the queen in The Queen of Sheba (1921).



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h E. Ullendorff (1991), "BILḲĪS", The Encyclopaedia of Islam 2 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 1219–1220 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Yosef Tobi (2007), "QUEEN OF SHEBA", Encyclopaedia Judaica 16 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 765 
  3. ^ a b The Queen of Sheba: Legend, Literature and Lore, Deborah M. Coulter-Harris, McFarland, 10.01.2013,
  4. ^ Eurafrique as the Future Past of Black France: Sarkozy's Temporal Confusion and Senghor's Postwar Vision / Gary Wilder, in Black France / France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness, Trica Danielle Keaton, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Tyler Stovall, Tyler Edward Stovall, Duke University Press, 26.06.2012
  5. ^ Spleth, Janice. The Arabic Constituents of Africanité : Senghor and the Queen of Sheba. Research in African literatures, Winter 2002, vol. 33, no 4, p. 60-75.Review on Muse
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Samuel Abramsky; S. David Sperling; Aaron Rothkoff; Haïm Zʾew Hirschberg; Bathja Bayer (2007), "SOLOMON", Encyclopaedia Judaica 18 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 755–763 
  7. ^ John Gray (2007), "KINGS, BOOK OF", Encyclopaedia Judaica 12 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 170–175 
  8. ^ a b c d A. F. L. Beeston (1995), "SABAʾ", The Encyclopaedia of Islam 8 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 663–665 
  9. ^ John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1894), "Seba", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature 9, Harper & Brothers, pp. 495–496 
  10. ^ John Gray (2007), "SABEA", Encyclopaedia Judaica 17 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 631 
  11. ^ A. Jamme (2003), "SABA (SHEBA)", New Catholic Encyclopedia 12 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 450–451 
  12. ^ John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Sheba", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature 9, Harper & Brothers, pp. 626–628 
  13. ^ a b John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Canticles", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature 2, Harper & Brothers, pp. 92–98 
  14. ^ Origen (1829), D. Caillau; D. Guillon, eds., Origenis commentaria, Collectio selecta ss. Ecclesiae Patrum 10, Méquiqnon-Havard, p. 332 
  15. ^ Raphael Loewe et al. (2007), "BIBLE", Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 615 
  16. ^ John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Solomon", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature 9, Harper & Brothers, pp. 861–872 
  17. ^ Arnaldo Momigliano; Emilio Suarez de la Torre (2005), "SIBYLLINE ORACLES", Encyclopedia of Religion 12 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 8382–8386 
  18. ^ a b c Ludwig Blau (1905), "SHEBA, QUEEN OF", Jewish Encyclopedia 11, Funk and Wagnall, pp. 235‒236 
  19. ^ Gershom Scholem (2007), "DEMONS, DEMONOLOGY", Encyclopaedia Judaica 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 572–578 
  20. ^ a b Susannah Heschel (2007), "LILITH", Encyclopaedia Judaica 13 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 17–20 
  21. ^ Budge, Queen of Sheba, Kebra Negast, §§ 38–64.
  22. ^ Weil, Shalva 1991 The Changing Religious Tradition of Ethiopian Jews in Israel: a Teachers’ Guide, Jerusalem: The Ministry of Education & Culture & NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education, Hebrew University. (Hebrew)
  23. ^ Abbink, "The Enigma of Esra'el Ethnogenesis: An Anthro-Historical Study". Cahiers d'Etudes africaines, 120, XXX-4, 1990, pp. 412–420.
  24. ^ a b Jankowski, Alice [Hrsg.]: Die Königin von Saba und Salomo. Die amharische Version der Handschrift Berlin Hs. or. 3542 _. Buske. Hamburg, 1987
  25. ^ a b K. Hruby; T. W. Fesuh (2003), "FALASHAS", New Catholic Encyclopedia 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 609–610 
  26. ^ Jacques Faitlovitch (1920), "The Falashas", American Jewish Year Book 22: 80–100 
  27. ^ Haïm Zʿew Hirschberg; Hayyim J. Cohen (2007), "ARABIA", Encyclopaedia Judaica 3 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 295 
  28. ^ a b Willie F. Page; R. Hunt Davis, Jr., eds. (2005), "Solomonic dynasty", Encyclopedia of African History and Culture 2 (revised ed.), Facts on File, p. 206 
  29. ^ Willie F. Page; R. Hunt Davis, Jr., eds. (2005), "Makeda, Queen (queen of Sheba)", Encyclopedia of African History and Culture 1 (revised ed.), Facts on File, pp. 158–159 
  30. ^ Vincent DiMarco, 'Travels in Medieval Femenye:Alexander the Great and the Amazon Queen,' in Theodor Berchem, Volker Kapp, Franz Link (eds.)Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch Duncker & Humblot, 1973 pp.47-66 pp.56-7.
  31. ^ Archaeologists find clues to Queen of Sheba in Nigeria, Find May Rival Egypt's Pyramids
  32. ^ Byrd, Vickie, editor; Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality, (Santa Ana, California: The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2004), p. 17.
  33. ^ Nicholas of Verdun: Klosterneuburg Altarpiece, 1181; column #4/17, row #3/3. NB the accompanying subject and hexameter verse: "Regina Saba." "Vulnere dignare regina fidem Salemonis." The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database; retrieved 24 December 2013.
  34. ^ Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam by Jacob Lassner, Daniel Boyarin, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Oct., 1994), pp. 300-302
  35. ^ a b c Needle, Scepter, Sovereignty: The Queen of Sheba in Englishwomen's Amateur Needlework Ann Rosalind Jones Early Modern Culture. (2003).
  36. ^ Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/bosch/91adorat/01tripty.html, website accessed August 2, 2006
  37. ^ Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women translated by Virginia Brown 2001, p. 90; Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press; ISBN 0-674-01130-9;
  38. ^ Marlowe, Christopher; Doctor Faustus and other plays: Oxford World Classics, p. 155.


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