Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (Saba’)

The Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”) is the most important Ethiopian scripture. It describes the descent of Amharic kings from queen Makeda of Ethiopia and king Solomon of Judaea. (Sheba or Saba’ encompasses  Yemen in southeast Arabia but also Ethiopia, where the Amharic people speak a closely related Semitic language.) (See map) The story, compiled from various sources between about 400 to 1200, explains the origin of Ethiopia’s Solomonic line, including a claim that the Ark of the Covenant was spirited from Solomon’s temple to Ethiopia.

Makeda, queen of Sheba, wearing a classically African crown (other known examples are found at Ilé-Ifè, Nigeria, and a Sao ceramic sculpture of a crowned woman, near Lake Chad)

Hearing of Solomon’s wisdom from a traveling merchant, Makeda journeys to Jerusalem. After a colloquy with the king, Makeda declares, “From this moment I will not worship the sun, but will worship the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel.” The Sabaeans were famed in both Hebrew and Arabic texts for venerating the sun, moon and stars. The time frame of Solomon’s reign is historically consistent with a powerful state in Saba’. So the Ethiopian queen converts to Judaism.

The next twist, in this text, is that before Makeda departs, Solomon tricks her into sleeping with him. She had asked him to swear that he will not force her into sex. He agrees, on condition that she wouldn’t take anything from his house by force. He feeds her a lot of spicy food, and in the night when she reaches for water in her thirst, he appears and says she has broken her promise, having taken water, the most valuable of all things. (What happened to the famous tradition of hospitality here? and how is this not coercion?) So, says the Kebra Nagast, Makeda assents to sex with Solomon. As she departs, he gives her a ring for their future son. Then Solomon dreams that the sun leaves Israel.

Queen of Saba’ and her entourage bring precious gifts to the palace of Solomon (unidentified Ethiopian manuscript, probably the Kebra Nagast)

Makeda bears a son, Menelik. When he comes of age, he goes to Jerusalem for his father’s blessing, and is recognized by the ring. Solomon wants Menelik succeed him as king, but he insists on returning to Ethiopia. So Solomon puts together a noble company to go back with him. Angry at being forced to leave their home and families, these young men secretly take the Ark out of the Temple and away to Africa. Menelik is not implicated in this deceit, but he finds out along the way. He is divinely transported back to Ethiopia through the skies, thwarting Solomon’s attempt to recover the Ark. (Here the ancient theme of Solomon’s straying into idol worship under the influence of his many foreign wives takes a new turn; it now becomes his attempt to console himself for the loss of the Ark.) Menelik’s return is celebrated with great pomp at Axum, and Makeda gives up her throne to him. (Natch!) Ethiopia becomes “the second Zion.”

“The Holy Makeda” as a saint and prophetess

The Kebra Nagast includes a magnificent passage where Makeda speaks of her search for Wisdom:

I have drunk of her, but have not tottered; I have tottered through her, but have not fallen; I have fallen because of her but have not been destroyed. Through her I have dived down into the great sea and have seized in the place of her depths a pearl whereby I am rich. I went down like the great iron anchor whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas, and I received a lamp which lighteth me, and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding. I went to sleep in the depths of the sea, and not being overwhelmed with the water I dreamed a dream. And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun; I laid hold upon it, and I will never let it go. I went in through the doors of the treasury of wisdom and I drew for myself the waters of understanding. I went into the blaze of the flame of the sun, and it lighted me with the splendour thereof, and I made of it a shield for myself, and I saved myself by confidence therein, and not myself only but all those who travel in the footprints of wisdom, and not myself only but all the men of my country, the kingdom of Ethiopia, and not those only but those who travel in their ways, the nations that are round about. [ ]

And then the Kebra Nagast returns to its central preoccupation, which is not Makeda herself, nor the wisdom of ancient Ethiopia of which she is the sole representative to be attested in written history. Instead, Makeda lays out the Solomonic line claim for the Ethiopian royal dynasty, a patrilineage going back to the Hebrew king. The book does credit her with building her capital Debra Makeda on a mountaintop. Other Ethiopian books give more details about Makeda’s parentage. The Ethiopian Book of Aksum describes her foundation of a new capital city at Azeba. Himyarite histories from Yemen also allude to this queen.

Queen of Sheba riding with sword and spear. Ethiopian MS.

At least one Ethiopian manuscript shows Makeda in connection with a labyrinth. One line in the Kebra Nagast, where Makeda speaks of “a star in my womb,” was undoubtedly intended as a reference to her future son and dynastic founder Menelik. But it can be read another way, as her womb in its own light: “And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun…”

The Biblical Account

Sheba, Solomon, and son: modern

The oldest account of the Queen of Sheba comes from the Bible, in the book of Kings. It does not give her a name. “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, tons of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.” [10:1-2] He answered every question she asked, and the biblical scribe describes her  as being “overwhelmed” by his wisdom, and by the wealth and splendor of his palace and kingdom.

The Queen praised Solomon and heaped him with precious gifts: “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” [10:10] The account says nothing about sex or a son, but goes on to describe tribute paid to Solomon, and the glories of Ophir in Arabia — or Ethiopia. In this account, the Queen is a peer, not a subordinated or inferior figure.

The Quranic Account

In Arabia, the Queen of Sheba is named Bilqis. Among the ruins of Mar’ib is a Sabaean temple platform with eight pillars, sometimes called the Temple of Awwan. Yemenite tradition calls it Mahram Bilqis, her  “sanctuary.” The Qur’an also contains an account about the Queen of Sheba. Again, it does not name her. Even though it treats her being Pagan as despicable, she is described as great in glory. The hoopoe bird tells Suleiman (Solomon) about Saba’:

Indeed, I found a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [his] way, so they are not guided, so they do not prostrate to Allah… [Sura 27:24-25]

This passage reflects a memory of ancient Sabean queendoms with a strong dimension of spiritual leadership.

Suleiman sends a threatening message to Bilqis, “Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission.” Bilqis talks to her counselors, who say that they will go by her decision. She declares, “Indeed kings – when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honor of its people humbled.” [27:35] This critique of warlordism is quite an extraordinary political statement for any ancient writing! and even more striking in being attributed to a woman ruler. The queen decides to send a gift, choosing the avenue of diplomacy, and to await Suleiman’s reply. He tells the emissaries that what Allah has given him is better than what they have, insults them for “rejoic[ing] in your gift,” and sends them back with a threat: “Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.” This is the declaration of a power-mad bully, not a man suffused in spiritual wisdom.

Before she set out to meet Suleiman, the Queen of Sheba locked and secured her throne. But the king sent a spirit to bring the throne to him, and disguised it, and tested her to see if she would recognize it. She did. Then Suleiman boasted of the primacy of his knowledge over hers. “And we were given knowledge before her, and we have been Muslims [meaning in submission to Allah, since this is all supposed to have happened fifteen centuries before Muhammad’s time]. And that which she was worshipping other than Allah had averted her. Indeed, she was from a disbelieving people.” [27:42-43]

The Quranic account continues with a story symbolizing the ignorance of the pagan Queen: “She was told, ‘Enter the palace.’ But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” [Sura 27, from (Much more detail here and here.) This passage shows the queen as exposing her body, considered as shameful for a woman, out of a misapprehension of the wonders in Suleiman’s kingdom. But like the sibyls of Christian tradition, she also symbolizes a prestigious figure of the old pagan order, now made to yield to new supercessionist religions and their exclusively masculine prophets.

Sura 27 portrays a powerful Pagan woman in a shaming and subordinating light, but nevertheless comes the closest that the Islamic scripture gets to a female prophet in her own right. In the Quranic account, she is shown coming not to seek wisdom but to avert a disastrous invasion of her country. In historical reality, as archaeologists have been discovering, Solomonic Israel was utterly incapable of mounting such an invasion, least of all against far-away Yemen or Ethiopia. Little trace remains of the fabled palaces described by the Hebrew scribes; many archaeologists now think they are likely to have been humbler affairs, as there was never a Hebrew empire like that in the inflated biblical account.

Some medieval Arabic historians have Bilqis arriving at the throne not by inheritance, but by marrying a tyrannical king in order to unseat him. She kills him on her wedding night, addresses the people, and takes the throne by acclamation. Her role is heroic, although the writers seem unable to imagine that such a queen could have ascended to the throne in her own right. However, “the earliest inscriptions of the rulers of Dʿmt in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea mention queens of very high status, possibly equal to their kings.”  [Rodolfo Fattovich, “The ‘Pre-Aksumite’ State in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea Reconsidered” in Paul Lunde and Alexandra Porter ed., Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region, in D. Kennet & St J. Simpson ed., Society for Arabian Studies Monographs No. 2. BAR International Series 1269. Archaeopress, Oxford: 2004, p. 73]

Because the Queen of Sheba appears in the Qur’an, Muslims spread her story around the world. It became heavily mythologized along the way. Some writers claimed that the Queen was reluctant to uncover her feet because they were deformed, which is why Solomon tricked her into revealing them. But most versions say that Bilqis had the feet of a donkey. This motif belongs to a larger body of faery stories about magical women with the feet of deer (usually), or other hoofed animals, including camels. The glaisteagan of Scotland, huldres of Denmark, and ‘Aisha Qandisha and her company in Morocco, are just a few of them. In the Muslim context, as in the Christian, these stories impute a demonic nature to the spirit-woman (except where an old folk nature spirit motif remains strong).

Such stories were already in circulation in early medieval Islam, with famous theologians like Hasan Al Basri characterizing Bilqis “in a particularly pejorative way as an ‘iljatu meaning ‘she-ass’ or ‘miscreant,’ an expression frequently used to insult non-believers.” (He also insulted her appearance and declared women unfit to rule.) These ideas were common coin, with some going so far as to assert that Bilqis was a jinn, or the “mother of jinni.” [“Bilqis, Queen of Sheba. A democratic queen.” Author unknown. ] Even today, rumors circulate that the Queen of Sheba was really a jinn. (Google Bilqis, you’ll see.)

Christian Representations of Sheba

European authors and artists extend these subordinating narratives that show Solomon as not only the political superior of the Queen of Sheba, but also her spiritual senior and initiator. But now they add a racial distortion, whitening her; whether she came from Ethiopia or Yemen, the Queen of Sheba would have been a dark-skinned woman. This whitening can also be seen in Persian manuscripts.

Female pagan “inferior” before male superior: and de-Africanized at that

I haven’t done an exhaustive study of these representations, but a net search shows that they fall into two primary categories. The first shows the Queen of Sheba approaching Solomon from below, sometimes kneeling before him, or else ascending toward the king who is seated on a dais many steps above her.

The queen on her knees, by Gerard de Jode

Another theme appears in some of the art, however, one of parity and partnership, the true wisdom legacy of the Queen of Sheba. One of these is shown in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise:

Sheba and Solomon, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

We’re now at a moment where women of African descent are re-envisioning who the Queen of Sheba may have really been, beyond the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptural traditions, within her original cultural context. What was the reality of ancient Ethiopian women? the oldest testimony I know of is the ancient megalithic statues of southern Ethiopia, in Sidamo and Soddo, all in the form of ancestral Mothers.

Invoking woman with beaded veil, southern Ethiopia