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By Brit McGinnis 2020 Jan 02
The Bible mentions a whole lot of people who remain a mystery to this day, from Adam and Eve to the Antichrist. Naturally, many of these characters haven’t been historically verified, and quite a few have been written off as nothing more than metaphors. The Queen of Sheba is one such figure, largely because she only shows up in one Biblical story.
The tale goes that she heard King Solomon was this awesome, smart ruler. So she rolled up in all her gold and finery to test him with riddles. Solomon answered every question, and as a result, the queen was pretty impressed. She then gave him gifts of gold and spices, and in return, the (obviously smitten) king gave her “all she desired.” And then the queen sauntered off back to her own land.
However, the queen is way too cool to just be featured in one Bible story. She actually appears in other tales in holy books like the Quran, but what’s the real deal about this mysterious figure? Well, get ready for some tough riddles as we take a look at the true story of the Queen of Sheba.
Where was the Queen of Sheba actually from?
If we’re going to talk about the Queen of Sheba, then we’ve got to ask a pretty obvious question. Where exactly is Sheba? Well, one theory, illustrated by the BBC, posits that Sheba refers to the Sabaean kingdom in what is now Yemen. So if the queen were heading over to Israel to meet King Solomon, that would make for a really long trek through modern-day Saudi Arabia. Of course, that trip wouldn’t be impossible for a determined queen with access to a lot of camels.
However, the country that claims the Queen of Sheba most strongly is Ethiopia. Yes, it’s a little farther from Israel than Yemen. It’s also landlocked thanks to the present country of Eritrea. But the Christian Science Monitor confirms that Ethiopia had a lot of interaction with Israel and it’s neighboring nations back in the day as a “gateway country” to the Middle East. Need proof? Well, present-day Ethiopians’ DNA is 40-50 percent based outside of Africa. Languages that originated in the Middle East are spoken in Ethiopia, and the two regions even share farming techniques and crops, suggesting communication over time.
The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon probably got it on
So King Solomon is suddenly visited by this beautiful black queen from a foreign land who wants to give him gifts and ask him riddles all night. Plus, she’s probably smelling great from all the incense. Is it crazy to assume he’d be a little interested in going further?
Well, the Ethiopian people believe that their first emperor, Menelik I, was indeed the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Translations of ancient writings maintain that King Solomon “worked his will” upon the Queen of Sheba, and they got together. Well, according to the tales, it’s a little more complicated than that. As one legend goes, the Queen of Sheba made Solomon swear that he wouldn’t take her by force, and the queen promised she wouldn’t take anything in his house. But being a pretty wily dude, Solomon gave the queen a whole lot of dry, salty food that made her thirsty, and later that night, when the queen tried to sneak a glass of water, Solomon called her out on breaking the deal. As a result, he didn’t have to hold up his part of the bargain.
Granted, the story then says “they slept together,” which seems to imply consent. Still, the whole thing is a little weird, but if the two actually did hook up, we’re hoping it was more of a one night stand between intellectual equals than a case of royal date rape.
King Solomon may have wanted her land
There’s a lot of weirdness around King Solomon getting it on with the queen. There’s no solid proof that it happened, and a lot of it is told through folklore. But one thing that would make total sense is the political intrigue around the Queen of Sheba’s land. After all, folks were constantly going to war over territory. And King Solomon may have been wise, but even he might have fallen for all that potential gold and incense.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Jewish legends describe the land of Sheba as incredibly rich in both population and wealth. Heaven allegedly provided the wreaths the people wore, as well as the water. On top of that, the dust of the country was said to be more valuable than gold. So as the story goes, King Solomon commanded the Queen of Sheba to come see him under threat of invasion (from beasts and demons, of all things). She responded by saying that not only would she come, but she would show up in three years instead of the normal seven it would take for her to travel to Jerusalem. Thus began the one-upmanship-turned-seduction between the two of them.
Her (possible) kingdom was pretty cool
So let’s assume that the Queen of Sheba hailed from modern-day Ethiopia. If that’s the case, then there’s a good chance that her ancient palace lies in an area known as the Tigray region. This section of Ethiopia contains over a hundred ancient churches, most of which are still used and all of which are carved into white rocks. Visitors can spy the remnants of an ancient city, including a 1600-foot-tall white obelisk that’s considered the tallest stone ever erected by humans. According to National Geographic, the site also includes underground royal catacombs and a giant gold mine that might’ve been the source of all those gifts to Solomon.
But here’s where we come to the uncomfortable part. It’s not 100 percent confirmed that the Queen of Sheba lived in Ethiopia. Some monuments associated with her are a thousand years off base from when she would’ve lived. But archaeological digs have confirmed royal seals were found in Aksum (what used to be the capital of the Aksumite Empire), and as of 2018, the region was only 10 percent excavated. In other words, more proof of the queen’s life in Africa may yet emerge.
People visit her grave every year
The tomb of the Queen of Sheba, according to Information Nigeria, is widely believed to be outside a village named Oke-Eiri. Thousands of people come every year to honor and pay respects to the queen. The grave itself is super impressive. It’s a place shaded by overgrown trees, allowing no plants to grow on it. It’s surrounded by ruins and ancient buildings, because of course, the queen would be buried within her impressive kingdom. Well, assuming it’s where she’s actually buried, anyway.
As of 2015, scientists were working away to excavate the area and confirm if it’s really the queen’s burial spot. The ruins are real, and the massive boundary walls were probably enough to terrifying anyone looking to invade. But regardless of whether or not the actual queen is buried here, the site is definitely important enough to be the designated spot for honoring her.
The Queen of Sheba was rolling in spices
Anyone who’s studied ancient civilizations will tell you that spices were an easy way to show how cool your kingdom was. If you had the flavors and crops people wanted, selling them was an easy way to get rich. Imagine if India was the only country able to grow cinnamon. How much would we be shelling out to India during the holiday season?
The Bible confirms that the Queen of Sheba gave Solomon “large quantities” of spices, in addition to gold and precious stones. It goes on to say, “There had never been such spices as those the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” Spices were sometimes given as tribute to kings, so this was a flattering move and a one-up challenge to Solomon at the same time. It’s also consistent with other accounts of people from Sheba in the Bible, who similarly came with loads of spices to trade.
So what spices did the queen show up with? The Bible doesn’t go into detail. However, we can make a pretty educated guess. A fact sheet put out by the Netherlands African Business Council listed turmeric, ginger, and korerima (aka Ethiopian cardamom) as spices grown in the country. And it’s safe to assume that King Solomon had probably tasted nothing like what the queen sprinkled on his food.
Legends say the Queen of Sheba was goat-like
The Queen of Sheba is surrounded by bizarre stories and strange legends, but one of the weirdest is so mystical that it’s probably not based in any truth at all. Or at the very worst, perhaps King Solomon was grossed out by body hair on a woman, giving rise to this particular tale.
The story starts with King Solomon hearing rumors that the Queen of Sheba had hairy legs and the feet of a donkey. He heard it from — no joke — a genie in his court. Well, more accurately, it was a jinn. The jinn was worried that King Solomon would want to marry this gorgeous black queen. But instead of disgust, the king was fascinated. He ordered a glass floor be built, in order to trick the queen into thinking it was water. And then, when she lifted up her skirt to walk over the water, her hairy legs (with possibly the left foot of a goat) were revealed.
The cause for the goat’s foot was that her mother supposedly craved goat meat when she was pregnant with the queen. PBS tells one version of the story where the queen’s hoof transforms into a normal foot. But there’s another version where King Solomon saw she had hairy legs and ordered the jinn to fetch her a hair removal cream. After all, there was no way he was going to let one of the most powerful women in history get away, hairy legs or no.
She may have worshiped the Sun
All of this diplomacy and canoodling between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba doesn’t mean they had a lot in common. If she was from Ethiopia, she was from a completely different continent and was exposed to completely different cultural forces than what King Solomon was pushing on a daily basis. Even if she came from Yemen, that was practically a different corner of the world in that day and age. And when it came to religion, the two had very different viewpoints about what deity was calling the shots.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in some tellings of the story, the Queen of Sheba ruled over a kingdom that worshiped the sun. King Solomon sent her a letter asking if she and her followers could pretty please start worshiping the Jewish god instead. The queen, probably rolling her eyes, sent King Solomon gifts in response. When he didn’t respond to the gifts, she made the epic trek over to his palace that we all know.
From there, the story largely runs close to the Bible story. But there’s one important addition. After listening to the wisdom of King Solomon and being amazed at his giant pimped-out palace, the queen eventually converted to Judaism. Today, there’s a huge Jewish heritage in Ethiopia and surrounding areas, by way of the Beta Israel religious group. So King Solomon working to impress a way-out-of-his-league queen may have spawned an entire religious culture.
She may have brought a mysterious plant to the Middle East
Josephus was one of the great historians of the ancient world, and according to this guy, the Queen of Sheba brought a mysterious plant called “balsam” to the Holy Land. What’s so mysterious about this particular type of flora? Well, we’re not exactly sure what Josephus meant by “balsam,” because he most likely didn’t mean balsam fir. At the moment, the best guess is that he was talking about a bright tropical flower in the genus Impatiens.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac describes the plant as desiring shade and water. That would have guaranteed it as a status symbol for people living in the hot, dry regions of the African continent. And the fact that it attracts birds and has seed pods that simultaneously burst would’ve made it absolutely freakish to King Solomon. But there are potentially different definitions for “balsam” that shouldn’t be ignored. Bible Study Tools points out that “balsam” could also refer to fragrant perfume or a resin that’s extracted from plants (not just from the balsam flower). So it’s possible that the queen blew Solomon’s mind with an otherworldly scent.
The Ark of the Covenant supposedly lies in her kingdom
We don’t hear much about Ethiopia in the Bible, except for when traders and Moses’ hot wife come around. But the queen and her son ensured that the country would forever have a place in modern Biblical scholarship.
The story goes that Menelik, the son of Solomon and the queen, made a journey to Jerusalem to see his dad. Once he showed up, he was welcomed with open arms. In fact, King Solomon loved his newly found son so much that he asked for Menelik to stay and rule the land after he passed away. Menelik refused and said he would return home. But he went above and beyond, leaving in the middle of the night along with the freaking Ark of the Covenant. Was this revenge because his birth dad “worked his will” on his mom? We’ll never know. But it’s a definite power move to take the Ark out of a Jewish holy city and into the rain-forest.
Granted, a lot of this is myth and legend. But National Geographic details that Ethiopian priests protect what may be the Ark (and the Ten Commandments) in Aksum, Ethiopia. It’s protected under the watch of monks that may or may not be trained to kill with their bare hands. Why weren’t these guys in the cast of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
The Queen of Sheba had power long after she was dead
The country of Ethiopia accepts the Queen of Sheba as the queen mother of their people. Why wouldn’t you, right? Her son brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, and she had that very kid with a king blessed by God. That’s true icon status, and it’s led to some people considering Ethiopians to be the chosen people of God.
In fact, the descendants of the queen have official divine right to rule in Ethiopia, a rule that was officially inscribed into the Ethiopian constitution in 1955. Plus, back in the 19th century, she played a part in a pretty unusual power struggle. See, a lot of what we know about the Queen of Sheba comes from an Ethiopian holy book called the Kebra Nagast, and evidently, whoever wields this thing has a whole lot of power. And we’re not talking about power in a magical sense. As it turns out, in 1872, King Yohannes IV of Ethiopia begged Queen Victoria in a letter, “There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia. … I pray you will find out who has got this book and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.”
Thankfully, Victoria returned the book from England (no word on if she was reading it or what). King Yohannes no doubt thought that having the inscription of formal Ethiopian law would win him favor over his rivals. And it just goes to show how much power the Queen of Sheba has had for years upon years, where even a book with her name in it can make or break a king.
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