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The Queen of Sheba is the monarch mentioned in the Bible and then in later works who travels to Jerusalem to experience the wisdom of King Solomon (c. 965-931 BCE) of Israel first-hand. The queen is first mentioned in I Kings 10:1-13 and in II Chronicles 9:1-12 in the Bible, then in the later Aramaic Targum Sheni, then the Quran, and finally the Ethiopian work known as the Kebra Negast; later writings featuring the queen, all religious in nature, come basically from the story as first told in the Bible. There is no archaeological evidence, inscription, or statuary supporting her existence outside of these texts.
The region of Sheba in the Bible has been identified as the Kingdom of Saba (also sometimes referred to as Sheba) in southern Arabia but also with Ethiopia in East Africa. In the biblical tale, the queen brings Solomon lavish gifts and praises his wisdom and kingdom before returning to her country. Precisely where she returned to, however, is still debated as the historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE) famously identified her as a queen of Ethiopia and Egypt but the probable (and most commonly accepted) dates for Solomon argue in favor of a monarch from southern Arabia; even though no such monarch is listed as reigning at that time.
Ethiopia or Arabia
The debate concerning whether the queen came from Ethiopia or Arabia has been going on for centuries and will no doubt continue, even though there is no hard evidence said queen even existed. Those who argue for an Ethiopian queen claim that she reigned over the Kingdom of Axum; but Axum did not exist during the reign of Solomon nor even when the Book of Kings was composed (c. 7th/6th century BCE). Axum only existed as a political entity c. 100 - c. 950 CE. It supplanted or evolved from an earlier kingdom known as D'mt which was influenced by the Sabean culture of southern Arabia.
The debate concerning whether the queen came from Ethiopia or Arabia has been going on for centuries, even though there is no hard evidence said queen even existed.
D'mt flourished between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE from its capital at Yeha but little else is known about the culture. Sabean influence is evident in the temple to the moon-god Almaqah, the most powerful Sabean deity, which still stands. Scholars are divided on how much the Sabeans influenced the culture of D'mt but the existence of the temple and linguistic similarities indicate a significant Sabean presence in D'mt.
This should not be surprising since Saba was a growing power c. 950 BCE and the wealthiest kingdom in southern Arabia c. 8th century BCE through 275 CE when it fell to the invading Himyarites. Whether D'mt was originally a Sabean colony is disputed, and the claim has largely been discredited but the proximity of the two kingdoms and obvious Sabean presence in D'mt suggest a close interaction. Saba was the trading hub in southern Arabia for the Incense Routes, and it would certainly make sense for them to have established friendly relations, if not a colony, just across the Red Sea.
It is possible, then, that the Queen of Sheba was a Sabean ruler of D'mt and that her legend then became associated with Ethiopia by the time Flavius Josephus was writing. It is more probable, however, that the association of Saba with D'mt led later historians, including Josephus, to claim she journeyed from Ethiopia when she actually came from Arabia. There is also, of course, the probability that she never journeyed from anywhere to anywhere because she never existed but the persistence of her legend argues for an actual historical figure.
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The Queen in the Bible
The Books of I Kings and II Chronicles relates the story of the queen's visit, and it is upon these works (or whatever sources the author of Kings worked from) that later versions of the story are based. According to the biblical tale, once Solomon became king he asked his god for wisdom in ruling his people (I Kings 3:6-9). God was pleased with this request and granted it but also added riches and honor to the king's name which made Solomon famous far beyond his borders.
The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom and doubted the reports; she, therefore, traveled to Jerusalem to experience it for herself. The Bible only states that the monarch is “the queen of Sheba” (I Kings 10:1) but never specifies where “Sheba” is. Her purpose in coming to see the king was “to prove him with hard questions” (I Kings 10:1) and, once he had answered them and shown her his wisdom, she presented Solomon with lavish gifts:
And she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to Solomon. (I Kings 10:10)
The 120 gold talents would amount to approximately $3,600,000.00 in the present day and this kind of disposable wealth would certainly be in keeping with the affluence of the Sabean monarchy though not necessarily during Solomon's reign. The mention of the great amount of gold and, especially, the “abundance of spices” certainly suggest Saba, whose main source of wealth was the spice trade, but evidence suggests Saba was most prosperous only from the 8th century BCE onward.
After giving Solomon these gifts, the queen then receives from him “all her desire, whatsoever she asked, besides that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty” and then returns to her country with her servants (I Kings 10:13). Following her departure, the narrative details what Solomon did with her gifts and with the almug trees and gold which Hiram of Tyre had brought him from the land of O'phir (I Kings 10:11-12, 14-26). Nothing further is mentioned of the queen in I Kings and her appearance in II Chronicles 9:1-12 follows this same narrative.
The Targum Sheni Version
The creatures all gratefully accept the invitation except for the woodcock who declines, pointing out that Solomon is not as great a monarch as the Queen of Sheba and so does not deserve this level of respect. Solomon then invites the queen to his palace to do homage to him and prove the woodcock wrong and, in order to make a greater impression on her, has one of the spirits under his command transport the queen's throne to him. When the queen arrives she is suitably impressed, walking across a floor of glass which seems water, but still tests Solomon by asking him difficult riddles which, through his wisdom, he is able to answer; the queen then pays him homage, and presumably, the woodcock is satisfied.
The Targum Sheni comes from the genre of rabbinic literature known as the midrash: commentaries and interpretation of scripture. The work has been dated to between the 4th-11th centuries CE with different scholars arguing for an earlier or later date based on textual clues. This debate, like the one surrounding the queen's country of origin, continues but it seems likely that the Quran borrows the story from the Targum Sheni since the Islamic work regularly makes use of other older material. To cite only one such example, the Greek story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus appears in a revised form in Sura 18. Like the tale of the Seven Sleepers, the story of the queen of Sheba changes in the Quran to fit the overall vision of the work.
The Queen in the Quran
In the Quran, the queen is known as Bilqis and rules over the mighty kingdom of Sheba. In this version of the story, as in the Bible, Solomon (given as Sulayman) is given the gift of the speech of birds, animals, and the spiritual entities known as jinn (genies). He assembles his hosts one day to inspect them but does not find the hoopoe bird among the company. Solomon says:
How is it with me that I do not see the hoopoe? Or is he among the absent? Assuredly I will chastise him with a terrible chastisement, or I will slaughter him, unless he bring me a clear authority [provide a good excuse]. (Sura 27:20)
The hoopoe bird appears and tells Solomon that he has been flying far and came to the land of Sheba where, he says, “I found a woman ruling over them and she has been given of everything and she possesses a mighty throne” (Sura 27:20). The bird then goes on to say how the people of Sheba worship the sun, not the god of Solomon, Allah, and how Satan has led them astray so that, although they have a great kingdom, they “are not guided, so that they prostrate not themselves to God” (Sura 27:25). Solomon forgives the bird his earlier absence and sends him with a letter to the queen, inviting her to visit his kingdom.
When the queen receives the letter, she calls a council and reads aloud how Solomon wishes her to come to him in submission to his god. She asks the council for advice, and they tell her they are ready to fight for her but the decision must finally be hers. She decides to send Solomon a gift through a messenger, but the king rejects it and tells the messenger that, unless the queen complies, he will “come against them with hosts they have not power to resist and we shall expel them from there, abased and utterly humbled” (Sura 27:35). After the messenger leaves, Solomon remembers what the hoopoe bird said about the queen's throne and asks his council-members who among them can bring him the royal seat before the queen arrives. A jinn assures him it can be done and brings him the throne.
Once the throne is installed in a pavilion made of crystal, Solomon disguises it. When the queen arrives, he asks her if it is her throne and she replies that it seems to be the same. She is then told to enter the pavilion where she bares her legs before stepping onto the floor because it is so clear she thinks it is water. The wonder of the crystal pavilion and the appearance of her own throne there overwhelms the queen, and she says, “My lord, indeed I have wronged myself and I surrender with Solomon to God, the Lord of all Being” (Sura 27:45). Once the queen has submitted to Solomon's god the narrative in the Quran ends but Islamic tradition and legend suggests that she married Solomon.
The Kebra Negast Version
In the Kebra Negast (“The Glory of Kings”) of Ethiopia this story is retold but developed further. Here, the queen's name is Makeda, ruler of Ethiopia, who is told of the wonders of Jerusalem under Solomon's reign by a merchant named Tamrin. Tamrin has been part of an expedition to Jerusalem supplying material from Ethiopia for the construction of Solomon's temple. He tells his queen that Solomon is the wisest man in the world and that Jerusalem is the most magnificent city he has ever seen.
Intrigued, Makeda decides to go visit Solomon. She gives him gifts and is given gifts in return and the two spend hours in conversation. Toward the end of their time together, Makeda accepts Solomon's god and converts to Judaism. Solomon commands a great feast to celebrate Makeda's visit before her departure, and she spends the night in the palace. Solomon swears an oath that he will not touch her as long as she does not steal from him.
Makeda agrees but, in the night, becomes thirsty and finds a bowl of water which Solomon has placed in the center of the room. She is drinking the water when Solomon appears and reminds her that she swore she would not steal and yet here she is drinking his water without permission. Makeda tells him he can sleep with her since she has broken her oath.
Before she leaves Jerusalem, Solomon gives her his ring to remember him by and, on her journey home, she gives birth to a son whom she names Menilek (“son of the wise man”). When Menilek grows up and asks who his father is, Makeda gives him Solomon's ring and tells him to go find his father.
Menilek is welcomed by Solomon and stays in Jerusalem for some years studying the Torah. In time, however, he must leave and Solomon decrees that the first-born sons of his nobles will accompany Menilek back home (possibly because the nobles had suggested Menilek should leave). Before the group departs, one of the sons of the nobles steals the ark of the covenant from the temple and replaces it with a duplicate; as the caravan leaves Jerusalem, the ark goes with them.
The theft of the ark is discovered soon after, and Solomon orders his troops to pursue but they cannot catch up. Menilek, meanwhile, has discovered the theft and wants to return the ark but is persuaded that this is the will of God and the ark is supposed to travel to Ethiopia. In a dream, Solomon is also told that it is God's will the ark was taken and so calls off his pursuit and tells his priests and nobles to cover up the theft and pretend the ark in the temple is the real one. Menilek returns to his mother in Ethiopia with the ark which is enshrined in a temple and, according to legend, remains there to the present day.
There are other later sources which also feature the mysterious queen and argue for or against her historicity. The Christian canticles of the Middle Ages, drawing on the New Testament references to a “Queen of the South” as the Queen of Sheba (Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31), represented her as a mystical figure. Christian art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance often chose the queen as a subject depicted either alone or in the company of Solomon.
The Talmud claims that there never was such a queen and that the reference to a queen in I Kings is meant to be understood figuratively: the “queen of Sheba” should be understood to mean the “kingdom of Sheba”, not an actual person (Bava Batra 15b). Other traditions seem to indicate there was such a queen but who she was and where she came from remains a mystery.
There is no reason to question the claim that a diplomatic mission may have been sent from Saba to Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon and that the emissary would have been a woman. The queen could have been the daughter of one of the Sabean kings or perhaps ruled on her own after the death of her husband.
There is, as noted, no record of a queen of Saba but neither is there any indication of a queen of Sheba named Makeda in Ethiopia or any record of a queen name Bilqis outside of the Quran. Historically, the Queen of Sheba remains a mystery but her legend has endured for millennia and she continues to inspire literature and art in her honor in the present day.
Queen of Sheba - History
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The Old Gods in American Gods have roots in the past and in mythology. While we might know the ins and outs of the New Gods, like Media and Technical Boy, there’s probably a lot we can still learn about their predecessors. For those of you hoping to get a better understanding of these characters before you continue on with American Gods, we’ve got you covered. Get to know the history that inspires the characters in our American Gods History Primer series.
Bilquis, a.k.a. Makeda, Bilqis, or the Queen of Sheba
In the Series
Even gods have to make a living, right? Strapped for sustenance and desperate for worshippers, the Old Gods in American Gods do what they can to get by. In fact, desperation is a key motivating factor. They need believers to keep going, to stay relevant, and they’ll do what they must to gain that belief.For Bilquis, the goddess of love, it means prostitution. Hey, her very survival is on the line. Though she used to be worshiped in an era long past, now she’s all but forgotten. Thanks to her profession, Bilquis receives worship from the praise of others through sex. She devours their warm and beating words figuratively and literally. As her clients reach climax, she consumes and absorbs them via her vagina. Worshippers disappear into her. She uses her line of work to her advantage and exerts power and control.
Bilquis is historically known by a few names, but mostly commonly as the Queen of Sheba. She shows up in myriad cultures and religions as a figure of legend and doesn’t seem to have a ton in common with the American Gods version. She’s referred to in texts such as the Bible (in the Old Testament), the Qu’ran, and the Kebra Negast. If you want to measure her reach in the form of art, that’s possible, too. The Queen of Sheba appears in frescoes created in the Italian Renaissance and in sculptures and stained glass in cathedrals like Chartres and Canterbury. But where did her story begin?
One constant comes up among the varying tales about her: the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. The story of her making the king’s acquaintance is included in the Bible, specifically in Kings. The text says:
“Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions… She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind.”
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba from The History of the True Cross (or Legend of the True Cross) by Piero della Francesca, painted in the mid-13th century
She wanted to test Solomon’s wisdom herself because she was too sensible to believe hearsay. Sheba was surprised to learn his wisdom and prosperity surpassed what she’d heard on the streets. Maybe she posed riddles to Solomon. Maybe she asked about how he ruled or about the Lord. We don’t know what her “hard questions” covered. It’s possible the queries were about trade and that she actually went with the intention of building a partnership between them.
From this original story in the Bible, speculation about the Queen of Sheba grew. PBS explains that, from contextual evidence and educated guesses based on possible sources of the gifts Sheba brought to Solomon, scholars estimate she was from what is now known as Ethiopia and Yemen. Both places in the Red Sea region claim her. Ethiopian tomes state she procreated with Solomon and therefore kicked off that dynasty–that account also states Solomon summoned her because he heard Sheba’s kingdom wasn’t worshiping God.
The various accounts of Sheba, regardless of how they end or what role Solomon plays in them, have an important common thread. The Queen of Sheba was an intelligent, bold, and powerful monarch. She questioned. She sought answers. She didn’t come to Solomon to instantly submit herself and her people she swept in as his equal. You can see similar traits in Bilquis.
Now, the catch–because of course there’s a catch: Bilquis exists through the magic of folklore and belief, like the character inspired by her in American Gods. No archaeological evidence has yet been uncovered to support any of the stories about or the existence of the Queen of Sheba. Whether that makes a difference in how you think about her is up to you.
Our first peak at Wonder Woman‘s villain: Ares, the God of War
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The Queen of Sheba: King Solomon’s Ethiopian Mistress
The Queen of Sheba is one of the people that stands out in scripture, even though there isn’t a lot that is said about her. According to the Bible, she made a special trip from Ethiopia to Israel just to meet Solomon, based only on hearing rumors of his wisdom. To understand the significance of this meeting, we must understand how political ties were made in the ancient world. In order to form alliances, royalty would often marry each other or have their children marry each other. We’ll come back to this meeting further down, but first, let’s look at the Queen’s Hamite connection:
“And the sons of Cush Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha: and the sons of Raamah Sheba , and Dedan.” – Genesis 10:7
To break it down, Sheba was the grandson of Cush and the great grandson of Ham. When the descendants of Ham began to settle Africa, Seba (son of Cush) settled the portion of Africa now known as Ethiopia. When Sheba settled, he settled in what is currently Yemen, but at the time was part of the Eastern territory controlled by Ethiopia. Sheba was essentially a city within the Ethiopian state.
Who Was The Queen of Sheba?
Her name is not given in scripture, but to the Ethiopians she was known as Queen Makeda. What we do know from scripture is that she had heard the fame of Solomon, and wanted to test his wisdom with “hard questions”.
“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.” – 1 Kings 10:1
This is also reflected in the New Testament, where she is referred to as “The Queen of The South”. If we look at the map above, we see that both Yemen and Ethiopia are to the south of Israel.
“ The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.” – Matthew 12:42
Queen Makeda arrived with a massive caravan full of gifts for Solomon, even though he is already rich beyond belief. After she is satisfied with his answers, The Queen of Sheba gives Solomon unmatched riches from her kingdom.
“And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.” – 1 King 10:10
What Did The Queen of Sheba Give Solomon?
What Did Solomon Give The Queen of Sheba?
This is where the story suddenly drops the details. After the Queen of Sheba gives Solomon his gifts, we’re told the Solomon gave her all of her hearts desire, in addition to what he gave her from his royal bounty.
“And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.” – 1 Kings 10:13
Many speculate that there is a lot more to the story, and that one of her requests was a son. Solomon was rich, powerful, wise, and the queen was impressed with him. It’s not out of the question that she and Solomon may have had a sexual relationship while she was there.
Solomon’s Secret Son
While it doesn’t appear in the Bible, there is a huge part of Ethiopian culture that does believe Solomon had a son with the Queen of Sheba, by the name of Menelik I. This goes back to what was mentioned in the beginning about alliances. Having a child with a neighboring king or queen often ensured generations of peace between the nations involved, so this story is not farfetched or even out of the ordinary. The Bible also makes a strange reference, but contains no explanation as to why it was made:
“ Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” – Amos 9:7
Again, scripture doesn’t outright say that Solomon fathered a son with the Queen of Sheba. According to part of the legend, after Menelik came to meet Solomon, he was sent home along with 1,000 people from each tribe (12,000 Hebrews), and The Ark of The Covenant. After returning home, Menelik became the 1st leader of the Solomonic Dynasty. The story of the origins of Menelik I explains why Judaism and Christianity are deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture.
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Queen of Sheba - History
The story of the Queen of Sheba appears in religious texts sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Described in the Bible as simply a Queen of the East, modern scholars believe she came from the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Saba in Yemen, or both. Their main clue is that she brought bales of incense with her as a gift frankincense only grows in these two areas. Both countries claim her as theirs. Given that they are separated by only 25 kilometers of water, both could be right.
In these tales the Queen of Sheba is a seeker of truth and wisdom and she has heard that King Solomon of Israel is a very wise man. She travels on camel to Jerusalem to meet him and test his knowledge with questions and riddles. With her she brings frankincense, myrrh, gold and precious jewels.
King Solomon has heard of Sheba and her great kingdom. He has also heard that she has a strange feature, a left foot that is cloven like that of a goat and a hairy leg. Eager to see if the story is true, he has the floor of his court polished until it is like glass. When the Queen of Sheba walks across the floor, Solomon sees the reflection of her cloven foot. Right in front of his eyes, it transforms and becomes normal.
The Queen of Sheba tests Solomon's wisdom, asking him many questions and giving him riddles to solve. He answers to her satisfaction and then he teaches her about his god Yahweh and she becomes a follower. This is how some Ethiopians believe Christianity came to their county. The Queen agrees to stay with King Solomon as a guest. An unmarried woman, she warns the King not to touch her. He replies that in exchange she should not take anything of his. He has tricked her, however. In the middle of her first night she is thirsty and she takes a glass of water. He confronts her and tells her that by breaking her agreement she has released him from his. They spend the night together and when she returns home from his kingdom, she is pregnant with a son.
She raises her son Menelik on her own. When he grows up, Menelik decides that he wants to meet his father and travels to Israel to meet King Solomon. When he returns, he takes with him the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred container that contained the Ten Commandments. In Ethiopian legend, the Ark has remained in Ethiopia ever since and Ethiopians see Menelik as the first in an unbroken line of Ethiopian kings that stretches into the 20th century.
The Bible says of this tale: "Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of King Solomon and wished to test him with riddles."
African pilgrims carry burning tapers.
A pilgrim in Axum where the Ethiopians believe the Lost Ark of the covenant resides.
The Elusive Queen of Sheba – Who was she Really?
She has to be one of the most elusive Bible characters of all: who really was the Queen of Sheba? Where exactly was her kingdom? And where was she born some three millennia ago (if she was a real person at all)?
According to Scriptures, the Queen of Sheba, whose real name remains disputed, voyages to Jerusalem to conduct a meeting with the wise King Solomon.
Bilqis reclining in a garden, Persian miniature (ca. 1595), tinted drawing on paper
Her arrival is overseen by a plenitude of servants. She also carries large quantities of gemstones, gold, and spices to the Israeli kingdom. She comes to Jerusalem in part for Solomon, whose wisdom and fame have left no stone unturned.
According to a 14th century Ethiopian tome, the Kebra Nagast (the Glory of Kings), the Queen of Sheba was an ancient Ethiopian queen by the name of Makeda. She lived in the city of Aksum, the UNESCO-protected ruins of which can nowadays be seen close to Ethiopia’s northern border.
Illustration in a Hafez Frontispiece Depicting Queen Sheba, Walters manuscript W.631, around 1539
Makeda would spend several months in Jerusalem, and before her departure home, Solomon invited her to sleep in the same part of his castle where his sleeping quarters were.
However, both of them gave terms for such a sleeping arrangement. From Makeda’s side: that Solomon would not approach to have intercourse with her. From Solomon’s side: that the visiting queen would not take anything that belongs to him in the dormitories.
King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from The History of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca
These terms were broken, however. For dinner, Solomon asked his servants to prepare a dish that was very salty and spicy. And alongside Makeda’s bed water was placed for the evening, for when she wakes up thirsty from the dinner. When the queen indeed woke up and drank water from the bowl during the night, Solomon entered her chamber and indicated that his water has been taken. The product of the evening would be a male offspring.
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As Ethiopian tradition tells us, the child of Sheba and Solomon was Emperor Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonid dynasty that concluded with the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s infamous reign during the mid-1970s.
Solomon and The Queen of Sheba Giovanni De Min 1789–1859
Menelik, who also traveled to Jerusalem to see his father, is credited for obtaining the Ark of the Covenant and bringing it to Ethiopia, either as an endowment or as a theft. To this date, many Ethiopians consider that the biblical artifact can be found inside the Chapel of the Tablet that is next to the Church of Maryam Tsion in Aksum. Replicas of the Ark can be found at other churches in the country, too.
The Kebra Nagast remains one of the most authentic and significant texts to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The text indeed names the alluring queen and pins down her lands as those belonging to ancient Ethiopia. Despite that, a great many contemporary scholars are confident that the Queen of Sheba was, in fact, a monarch of Yemeni provenance. That is just across the Red Sea on the Arabian peninsula, and also brings us to the Quran interpretation of the story.
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Konrad Witz
An important aspect of why the Queen of Sheba would have come from Yemen is her name. About the time King Solomon reigned, which is circa 970 to 931 BC, the ancient Ethiopian and Yemeni territories fell under the dominion of one dynasty — its seat likely found in Yemen. This ancient kingdom was called Saba and many historians interpret Saba as Sheba. The Quran names the kingdom’s queen Bilqīs.
As the Quran account of events goes, Bilqīs and her people revered a sun deity, and it was due to this that King Solomon invited the queen to come to Jerusalem and potentially accept a new faith. Bilqīs initially perceived such an invitation as ominous, that perhaps the king from Jerusalem wanted to annex her own kingdom. Uncertain of the answer, she embarked on the journey to meet with Solomon. Bilqīs was quickly impressed by the foreign king and she no longer saw him as a threat. In fact, she would go on and adopt his religion.
The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, Claude Lorrain (1600‒1682), oil on canvas
In this variant of the story, the two biblical characters never became intimate, plus, oddly enough, Bilqīs had the feet of a goat because her own mother ate a goat before giving birth. While it is likely that the Queen of Sheba, whoever she really was, may have reigned over both Ethiopia and Yemen, it is quite unlikely that she was born in both places.
The Queen of Sheba, from a 15th-century manuscript now at Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen
Given the incredibly strong relationship both countries have had throughout history, perhaps it was the two different traditions that helped lose trace of some of the basic facts here. National Geographic travel writer Stanley Steward beautifully notes that: “The Queen of Sheba is the Greta Garbo of antiquity.
The Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, Tintoretto (around 1555)
A glamorous, mysterious figure immortalized in the Bible and the Quran, celebrated in an oratorio by Handel, an opera by Charles Gounod, a ballet by Ottorino Respighi, and depicted in paintings by Raphael, Tintoretto, and Claude Lorrain, she remains tantalizingly elusive to the inquiries of historians.”
The Queen of Sheba’s popularity has indeed grown beyond her assumed regions of provenance. Perhaps one day archaeologists will stumble upon new evidence, either on the African or the Asian side of Red Sea, to support either of the two prevalent theories. Or perhaps we will never know for sure to whom this mysterious biblical queen belonged.
Bilquis (American Gods)
Bilquis, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is a minor antagonist in the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman. She has a minor role in the book and she is one of the Old Gods. She was born of a demon, so the stories say, and ruled Sheba when she was a young queen. She is the goddess of love and lust, and lived til modern times.
In modern times, she is a prostitute, and she has the power to absorb men who come to her apartment in Las Vegas for paid sex. Bilquis can absorb men through her vagina, literally eating them into nothing, and she tells them they make it happen when she eats them. This is how the Queen gets her power this way because the other gods have different ways of keeping their power i.e. Odin does gambling, Czernobog does deals, Eastre has Easter, Media has the television, but Bilquis has the power of absorbing men.
The Queen stands on the sidewalk murming spells under her breath and once she is approached by the Technical Kid who insults her for being stupid and he rams into her in his limousine, killing her.
Sheba was the name of a great South Arabian kingdom whose name meant “Host of Heaven and peace”. Located in southwest Arabia on the eastern tip of the Red Sea , Sheba occupied 483,000 square miles and many historians believe that it included the land of Ethiopia , on the western end of the Red Sea . Sheba was a wealthy country rich in gold and other precious stones as well as incense and spices that were much sought after by neighboring countries. She also had an advanced irrigation procedures and hydraulic power. It’s peoples built dams and large earthen wells that also contributed to their thriving agriculture and exotic gardens. Trade caravans frequently traveled to Sheba to trade for her goods.
The Sabaean people were Semitic in origin and believed to have been the descendents of Cush in the Bible. They have been described as a tall and impressive people. Because of isolation, Sheba was unable to be invaded and was independent and at peace with neighboring kingdoms for nearly 500 years during the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.
The Queen of Sheba no doubt thought it wise to keep on good terms with Israel , which was rapidly rising in power. She was also undoubtedly curious regarding the stories told of the wisdom and regal splendor of Israel ’s king, Solomon. She prepared her royal caravan and started on her thousand-mile journey. Solomon was accustomed to royal gifts from surrounding nations but the camels laden with the choicest of spices from the land of spices surprised even the king. The Bible states that “There came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon” (1 Kings 10:10 ), and the hundred and twenty talents of gold, over fifteen million dollars, was a gift that even the wealthiest of kings could not ignore.
We may presume that Solomon and his people had not held the people of Arabia in high esteem. They had neither the history nor the deeds of Egypt and the Far East to boast of, but they had gold mines, which made that metal an abundant commodity. The coming of that caravan to Jerusalem changed the opinion of the Israelites regarding that great south land.
The Queen of Sheba, who brought surprises, found more surprises herself. Day after day she listened to Solomon’s words, putting to him hard questions in philosophy and religion, especially seeking information concerning his God. She gazed on the splendid architecture of palace and temple, and at last was led to exclaim, “It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom. Howbeit, I believed not the words until I came and mine eyes had seen it and behold the half was not told me!” (King, Woman, p. 60).
Legend has it that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba fell in love and were married. Together they had one son who became emperor of Ethiopia and started the Solomonic Jewish dynasty in that country.
The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible
In the Hebrew Bible, the story about the Queen of Sheba is found in 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9: 1-12, though both accounts say more or less the same thing. In both of these accounts, the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon in Jerusalem, as she had “heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD,” and wanted to “prove him with hard questions”. For her visit to Jerusalem, the Queen of Sheba brought with her “a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones”.
The account then states that the Queen of Sheba asked Solomon the questions that she had set, and the king was able to answer all of them. The queen was overwhelmed by Solomon’s wisdom , as well as the wealth of his kingdom, “And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built, / And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD there was no more spirit in her”.
The Queen of Sheba was impressed by the wisdom of King Solomon. (JarektUploadBo / Public Domain )
Needless to say, the presence of the Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible is meant to show off Solomon’s wisdom, the wealth of his kingdom, and to glorify God. At the same time, the account provides us with a tantalizing glimpse of the wealth possessed by the Queen of Sheba:
“And she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents (about 4 tonnes) of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. / And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones”. 1 Kings 10:10 New International Version (NIV) Bible
Solomon, likewise, treated the queen with great generosity during her stay in Jerusalem, “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty”. After that, the Queen of Sheba returned to her own country, and does not reappear in the Hebrew Bible.
It may be mentioned that this legendary queen makes a cameo in the New Testament. In Matthew 12: 42, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees who were asking him for a sign by saying “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here”. The ‘queen of the south’ is equated with the Queen of Sheba.
In addition, this Old Testament story is re-cast in a new light by Christians. For instance, the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon is seen as a metaphor for the submission of the Gentiles to Christ. In addition, the queen is said to foreshadow the Virgin Mary through her chastity. And her gifts of gold, spices, and stone, are said to mirror the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented by the magi to the infant Jesus.
Riches and riddles
In the Bible, the Queen of Sheba is depicted as smart, independent, challenging, and respectful. Flavius Josephus, author of the first-century A.D. history The Antiquities of the Jews, described Sheba as “inquisitive into philosophy and on that and on other accounts also was to be admired.”
By the time the story was retold in the Targum Sheni, a seventh-to eighth-century A.D. Jewish text, the story had amassed more details. The details of the meeting are similar, but the story begins with a talking hoopoe, a crested bird native to the region. The bird informs Solomon that the land of Sheba is the only one on Earth not subject to his power.
Solomon sends the hoopoe to Sheba with a letter urging the queen to submit to him. She responds by sending back a fleet “with all the ships of the sea” loaded with precious gifts, including 6,000 young men—all the same height, all dressed in purple, and all born at the same time on the same day. They deliver a message from the queen announcing that she will travel to Jerusalem.
On arrival, the queen presents Solomon with three riddles, which he promptly solves. This exchange reveals her knowledge and diplomatic skill as the riddles are more than a game to her. They are a way for her to size up Solomon. (Selflessness inspired love in the Book of Ruth.)
Some scholars argue the Quran’s version of the story borrows from the Targum Sheni. However, there is historical uncertainty as to exactly when the Targum Sheni was written. It may, in fact, postdate the seventh-century composition of the Quran, in which case the Islamic text could have influenced the Jewish text, and not the other way around.
In the Quran, the queen is unnamed, but contemporary Arabic sources call her Bilqis. In the Islamic version, Suleiman (Solomon) believes in Allah, is known for his wisdom, and can understand the language of the trees and animals. Suleiman also controls an army of “jinn (magical spirits) and men and birds.” Like the Jewish text, the story begins with a bird, which brings news to Suleiman from the far off land of Sheba, where the powerful Bilqis rules and people worship the sun. The bird says: “I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah,” prompting Suleiman to send a letter in which he urges the queen to convert to Islam.
In this version of the story, Suleiman rejects the queen’s emissaries and rich gifts. In contrast to the Bible and the Targum Sheni, it is Suleiman who tests the queen’s intellect. While she is traveling to visit him, the king sends a jinn to steal her throne and bring it to Jerusalem. There he disguises the throne in order to see if the queen will realize it is hers. She does, so Suleiman welcomes her to his impressive palace.
Suleiman shows the queen a floor made of glass. When she sees it, she thinks it is a pool of water, so she lifts her skirts to avoid getting them wet. Her legs are revealed, and she does not shave them. Modern feminist commentators have interpreted this attribute as a sign that power has made her unfeminine. This episode also appears in the Targum Sheni: “Your beauty is the beauty of women, but your hair is the hair of men,” Solomon tells her.
In Jewish literature, the Queen of Sheba is also identified with Lilith, an ancient demonic figure. Likewise, in the Quranic text, a jinn warns Suleiman about the queen’s demonic side, fearing the king might be tempted by her beauty. Instead, the queen submits to Solomon and commits herself to “Allah, the Lord of all worlds.”
Queen of Sheba: Bible
An independent woman ruling a fabulously wealthy Arabian or African kingdom to the south of Judah, this unnamed queen appears in one of the many stories emphasizing the grandeur of Solomon’s court and his international reputation for extraordinary wisdom. In the brief notice of her visit, the 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles narratives highlight her wealth and intelligence, as well as Solomon’s. Despite the legendary nature of her story, extrabiblical records from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which amply attest to the presence of strong women rulers of international reputation in Egypt and Arabia both before and after the general time period in which the Hebrew Bible places Sheba (c. tenth century b.c.e .), lend credibility to the biblical account. Although some have attempted to identify Sheba’s visit with the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut’s famed expedition to Punt, the land of incense in the Horn of Africa (catalogued on the walls of the queen’s temple at Deir el-Bahri in Egypt), this connection is far too early to fit within biblical chronology. Nevertheless, connections between the Horn of Africa and the kingdoms of southwest Arabia have been well established by archaeology, so the possibility of Sheba’s African origin is not out of the question. Some later traditions connect Sheba with the “dark and lovely” companion of Solomon in the Song of Solomon.
While her presence in the Hebrew Bible is due to a desire to show Solomon’s magnificence and knowledge, certain terms in the story have given rise to a rich folkloric tradition about her in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian postbiblical legends. Both the phrases “she came” (1 Kgs 10:1) and “Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired” (v. 13a), for example, have led to the suggestion of a sexual relationship between the two, which issued in a son, variously called Menelik (Ethiopian Christian), Rehoboam (Islamic), or Nebuchadnezzar (Jewish). For Christians, she is identified with the queen of the South (Matt 12:42 Luke 11:31) or Candace (Acts 8:27) of Ethiopia, and she typifies the “outsider” female who has more good sense than “insider” men.
The queen of Sheba appears in the Antiquities of Josephus (8.5.5) with the name Nicaulis, a noble philosopher and ruler from Egypt or the Horn of Africa. She also appears in the Qur’an (Sura 27) as a queen who submits to Solomon, the prophet of Allah, and converts to Islam. In Jewish legend, she is identified with Lilith, queen of demons. Although her riddles (“hard questions”) do not appear in the Bible, they are given in subsequent sources and show her vast knowledge of the world, including the history of the ruling families of Judah.
Sheba, despite the mystery of her origins, presents us with a valid memory of women who managed to carve out high-ranking positions for themselves in worlds dominated by men. Her “hutzpah” in “testing”—that is, challenging—God’s chosen king with riddles is in no way out of character for such a monarch. It may be that the Bible’s anxiety over the existence of such women is the reason for the suppression of her riddling tradition. Extrabiblical legends also show her to be a facile user of riddles and other wisdom forms, by which she displays her cunning and statecraft. Whether viewed as a dangerous demonic partner or a noble ancestress, traditional sources portray her as an able ruler, and hence, a powerful human incarnation of the virtues and abilities residing in Woman Wisdom of Proverbs 1–9.
Abbott, Nabia. “Pre-Islamic Arab Queens.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 58 (1941): 1–22.
Fontaine, Carole R. “More Queenly Proverb Performance: The Queen of Sheba in the Targum Esther Sheni.” In Wisdom, You Are My Sister: Studies in Honor of Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Michael L. Barré, 216–233. Washington, D. C.: 1997.
Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago: 1993.
Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.