The Queen of Sheba is a figure first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. In the original story, she brings a caravan of valuable gifts to King Solomon. This tale has undergone extensive Jewish, Islamic, and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Orient.
Modern historians identify Sheba with the South Arabian kingdom of Saba in present-day Yemen. The queen’s existence is disputed and can’t be confirmed by historians.
She is said to have ruled Ethiopia for about fifty years and founded the Menelik dynasty that continued until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.
The Yoruba Ijebu clan of Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria, claiming that she was a noblewoman of theirs known as Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo, which is similar to the queen’s name mentioned in the Quran. 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.”
Based on the Gospels of Matthew (12:42) and Luke (11:31), the “queen of the South” is claimed to be the queen of Ethiopia. In those times, King Solomon sought merchants from all over the world, in order to buy materials for the building of the Temple.
Among them was Tamrin, great merchant of Queen Makeda of Ethiopia. Having returned to Ethiopia, Tamrin told the queen of the wonderful things he had seen in Jerusalem, and of Solomon’s wisdom and generosity, whereupon she decided to visit Solomon. She was warmly welcomed, given a palace for dwelling, and received great gifts every day.
Solomon and Makeda spoke with great wisdom, and instructed by him, she converted to Judaism. Before she left, there was a great feast in the king’s palace. Makeda stayed in the palace overnight, after Solomon had sworn that he would not do her any harm, while she swore in return that she would not steal from him.
As the meals had been spicy, Makeda awoke thirsty at night and went to drink some water, when Solomon appeared, reminding her of her oath. She answered: “Ignore your oath, just let me drink water.” That same night, Solomon had a dream about the sun rising over Israel, but being mistreated and despised by the Jews, the sun moved to shine over Ethiopia and Rome (i. e. the Byzantine empire). Solomon gave Makeda a ring as a token of faith, and then she left.
On her way home, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Baina-leḥkem (i. e. bin al-ḥakīm, “Son of the Wise Man”, later called Menilek). After the boy had grown up in Ethiopia, he went to Jerusalem carrying the ring and was received with great honors. The king and the people tried in vain to persuade him to stay. Solomon gathered his nobles and announced that he would send his first-born son to Ethiopia together with their first-borns.
He added that he was expecting a third son, who would marry the king of Rome’s daughter and reign over Rome so that the entire world would be ruled by David’s descendants. Then Baina-leḥkem was anointed king by Zadok the high priest, and he took the name, David. The first-born nobles who followed him are named, and even today some Ethiopian families claim their ancestry from them. Prior to leaving, the priests’ sons had stolen the Ark of the Covenant, after their leader Azaryas had offered a sacrifice as commanded by one God’s angel. With much wailing, the procession left Jerusalem on a wind cart lead and carried by the archangel Michael.
Having arrived at the Red Sea, Azaryas revealed to the people that the Ark is with them. David prayed to the Ark and the people rejoiced, singing, dancing, blowing horns and flutes, and beating drums. The Ark showed its miraculous powers during the crossing of the stormy Sea, and all arrived unscathed. When Solomon learned that the Ark had been stolen, he sent a horseman after the thieves and even gave chase himself, but neither could catch them.
Solomon returned to Jerusalem and gave orders to the priests to remain silent about the theft and to place a copy of the Ark in the Temple so that the foreign nations could not say that Israel had lost its fame.
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. 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 A.D. 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.
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. “Ethiopians see their country as God’s chosen country, the final resting place that he chose for the Ark – and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there”. 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.
According to one tradition, the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel, “Falashas”) also trace their ancestry to Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. An opinion that appears more historical is that the Falashas descend from those Jews who settled in Egypt after the first exile, and who, upon the fall of the Persian domination (539–333 B.C.) on the borders of the Nile, penetrated into Sudan, whence they went into the western parts of Abyssinia.
Several emperors have stressed the importance of the Kebra Negast. One of the first instances of this can be traced in a letter from Prince Kasa (King John IV) to Queen Victoria in 1872. Kasa states “There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the shums (governors), churches and provinces are in this book. 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.” Despite the historic importance given to the Kebra Negast, there is still doubt to whether or not the Queen sat on the throne.