Mekada, Queen of Sheba

Throughout the ages, the legendary Queen of Sheba has evoked images of beauty, wealth and power. Few women in history have captured our imaginations so strikingly, yet cloaked themselves in such mystery.

Her story has been woven into the folklore and traditions of both Eastern and Western cultures. Yet for all the exotic tales, romance novels, and colorful theories about her, she remains an enigma. Archaeologists are yet to learn the Queen of Sheba's proper name.

Christians and Jews are most familiar with the Biblical record of her meeting with King Solomon of Israel (thought to have occurred around 950–930 B.C.). On hearing of his wisdom, II Chronicles 9 says that the Queen made the journey north to Solomon's courts "to test him with hard questions." The conference proved a success, culminating in the two monarchs bestowing wealth and good favor on each other.

Many historians believe her visit to Jerusalem was probably a trade mission, the Queen ensuring her kingdom's lucrative trade in frankincense and myrrh would continue unhindered by Solomon's armies.

The Koran also refers to the Queen's meeting with Solomon, but tells of the king traveling south to meet with her in Marib, her capital.

Jesus speaks of her in Matthew 12:42, crediting the Queen of the "South" (Semitic for Yemen) as a righteous woman for seeking King Solomon's wisdom.

According to Arabic traditions, the Queen (known to Arabs as Bilqis) ruled with the heart of a woman and the head of a man and worshipped the sun and the moon.

The meeting of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba had significant repercussions upon the fate of Israel.

The matriarchy of Sheba (believed to be early Ethiopia) has inspired writers, artists and readers for centuries.

The country Sheba or Saba, whose name means Host of Heaven and peace, was Abyssinia. Located in southwest Arabia on the eastern tip of the Red Sea, Sheba occupied 483,000 square miles of mountains, valley and deserts in the area of present day Yemen. Some historians claim that Ethiopia, on the western end of the Red Sea, was also part of Sheba's territory.

Sheba was a wealthy country, advanced in irrigation techniques and hydraulic power. Its people, the Sabaeans, built dams as high as 60 feet and large earthen wells which contributed to their thriving agriculture and beautiful gardens. Rich in gold and other precious stones, as well as incense and exotic spices sought by neighboring kingdoms, Sheba engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. By 1000 B.C., camels frequently traveled the 1400 miles up the "Incense Road" and along the Red Sea to Israel.

The spices of Sheba were highly prized. Frankincense, an offering to the gods, was heaped on funeral pyres, and given as an antidote for poison, and as a cure for chest pains, hemmorrhoids and paralysis. Myrrh, an ingredient in fragrant oils and cosmetics, was used in preparing bodies for burial, for healing ear, eye and nose ailments, and inducing menstruation. Other Sabaean spices were saffron, cummin, aloes and galbanum.

The Sabaeans have been described as a tall and commanding people, both woolly–haired and straight–haired. Semitic in origin, they are believed to have been descendents of the Cush of the Bible. The sacred Ethiopian book which establishes the founder of the Ethiopian dynasty as the son of Solomon and Sheba, suggests that the Sabaeans were black. "Ye are black of face – but if God illumineth your hearts, nothing can injure you," priest Azariah says to the Queen and her people in the 'Kebra Negast'.

Because of its isolation, Sheba was secure from military invasion for at least 500 years, and was independent and at peace with its neighbors during the 11th and 10th century B.C. History reveals that at least five kings preceded the Queen of Sheba – among them Iti'amra and Karibi–ilu. Yet Arabian documents portray all of Arabia as matriarchal and ruled by queens for over 1000 years. In Ethiopia, the 'Kebra Negast' refers to a law established in Sheba that only a woman could reign, and that she must be a virgin queen.

Numerous legends refer to the female–centered clans, matriarchal practices, and matrilineal inheritance of ancient Arabia and surrounding countries. In Assyria, the head of a family was called the 'shebu', and was originally a female, or matriarch. In other mideastern lands, polyandry was sanctioned – a woman could marry several husbands, who left their own families to live with hers; she could also initiate divorce by turning her tent to face east for three nights in a row. Before the onset of patriarchy, women may have experienced superior – or at least equal – rights with men.

Since Sheba was a center of astronomical wisdom and the Queen or King was chief astronomer/ astrologer, religious life involved worship of the Sun and Moon. Shams was the Sun god.

The Great Goddess who dwelt in the sacred black aniconic stone was given the title Shayba by the Arabic–Aramaen people. Shayba represented the Moon in its threefold aspect – waxing, (maiden), full (pregnant mother), and waning (old wise woman or crone). But the primary Sabaean Moon god was Ilmukah or Ilumguh, identified with the god Sin of Assyro–Babylonian mythology. Sin was portrayed as an old man with an azure beard, the color of lapis lazuli, and a turbaned head. Wearing a crown shaped like a full moon, Sin rode a crescent moon–boat from which he navigated the night sky.

Also called 'He–Whose–Deep–Heart–No–God–Can–Penetrate', he dispersed evil and darkness, and inspired his believers with dreams and prophecies.

A Moon goddess worshipped by the Sabaeans was Astarte, or Ashtart, whom they called Astar, which means womb. The giver and destroyer of life, Astar was Queen of Heaven and Mother of all Deities. Arriving from heaven as a ball of fire, and accompanied by a lioness, she was pictured with horns, and a disc of the sun above her forehead.

The earliest known Arabian temple was at Marib, capital of Sheba, and was called Mahram Bilqus, 'precincts of the Queen of Sheba.'

In Arab lore, this queen was named Bilqus or Balkis; in Ethiopia, Makeda (also Magda, Maqda and Makera), meaning 'Greatness'. Years later, the historian Josephus, referred to her as Nikaulis, Queen of Ethiopia and Egypt.

Legends of the Queen of Sheba are common throughout Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia and Israel. In Arabian tradition, Balkis ruled with the heart of a woman but the head and hands of a man. Islamic stories portray Solomon as marrying the Queen. In contrast to the Bible, they portray her abandoning her gods and converting to the God of the Israelites.

Arabian folklore and the Qu'ran present fanciful stories of the Queen of Sheba. Many of these tales involve magic carpets, talking birds, and teleportation – the miraculous transfer of Balkis' throne in Sheba to Solomon's palace.

Sheba was an adoring adolescent in search of a wise hero, or a confident, powerful young woman who journeyed to Jerusalem to challenge Solomon, she was impressed with his wisdom, compassion, justice and wealth.

King Solomon, was supposedly the wisest man who ever lived, ruled not only over men and women, but also over the beasts, birds, demons, spirits and all the specters of the night. He could speak all their languages.

The name of Solomon (Sol–Om–On) means Sun, as well as peace. Born to King David and Bathsheba, Solomon grew up in a polygamous home, for David had 18 wives. Early in his 39–year reign as king, which began in 961 B.C., he married the daughter of the Egyptian pharoah, whose dowry included 1000 musical instruments, and 80,000 Egyptian builders.

The marriage may have been a political affair, for Solomon sought the architectural skills of the Egyptians; legends say that personally, she disappointed him. Later, Solomon took hundreds of wives and concubines. Many historians believe that he did not become polygamous until after his meeting with Sheba, early in his reign.

Whatever his marital status when he met Makeda, Solomon was a handsome man, attractive to women. With dark hair, a tanned lean body and gracious smile, he had an attentive bearing and compelling charm. He also possessed courtly manners and a lively, youthful spirit. Bedecked in elegant tunics of fine fabric dyed royal purple, he wore golden collars and chains, as well a golden circlet with sea–green stones.

Israel during the time of Solomon was a unified kingdom, 30,000 square miles in area – a small but respected power existing peacefully between Assyria and Egypt. Because Solomon was talented in international diplomacy, he negotiated trading agreements with neighboring kings, most notably the Phoenician king, Hiram of Tyre. As a result, his large fleet was built and manned by Phoenicians, and capable of sailing from Esyon–Geber or Eilat on the Red Sea to Ophir, Sheba, and India.

Solomon was (at least initially) a capable administrator, who raised the vast wealth required for his many projects by consolidating his central government and taxing the twelve districts of his kingdom, each which supported his court for one month each year. Later in his reign, his reliance upon heavy taxation, forced labor and slavery led to revolt.

Although reports in I Kings of his 40,000 horse stalls and 1400 chariots may be exaggerated, archaeologists have unearthed 450 horse stalls and 150 sheds for chariots at Megiddo alone. Indeed, Solomon was a wealthy king who gloried in splendor and luxury. His palace boasted vineyards, gardens, pools and singers with exotic musical instruments. Its three large pillared halls, built of cedar and cypress, were ornamented with carved ivory, gold, and sandalwood, with draperies of crimson and purple. Between two imposing gold lions, he sat on his great ivory throne with golden armrests and golden embroidery.

In order to build his Palace and Temple, Solomon sent 10,000 workers a month to Lebanon to fell and transport over land and sea the 120–foot feet high cedars of Lebanon. His great temple, built by Phoenician craftsmen, consisted of three large rooms of richly carved cedar, cypress and marble, with a huge bronze altar and bronze columns 40 feet high, hauled up to Jerusalem from the Jordan valley. Although costly, the Temple was a source of national pride and unity.

Solomon's commitment to building the Temple reflected not only his love of magnificent architecture, but also his piety. Early in his reign, he dedicated himself to God.

One night he invited all the birds to sing to his noble guests. All came except the hoopoe. Angry, the king ordered a search, and when the hoopoe was found and rebuked, the bird explained that he was not guilty of disrespect. On the contrary, for the last three months he had hardly tasted any food or water, flying all over the world to discover if any place existed which was not yet subject to Solomon.

Finally he found the land of Sheba, ruled by a beautiful and wise woman called Queen Balkys, where they have not heard the name of Solomon. The lush land in the middle of the desert boasted gold, silver, and great gems, and one of the most valuable treasures of the royal line was the throne, intricately carved of precious woods and inlaid with ivory and gold. The inhabitants of Sheba did not know the meaning of war, said the hoopoe. Solomon could easily conquer the land and take all its fabulous riches.

But that was not the king's wish. Instead, he wrote a letter and tied it to the wing of the hoopoe. The letter invited the queen to come and pay tribute to King Solomon, like the rest of the kings and queens of the world. If she would consent to do so, he would treat her with honor and bestow gifts upon her country. If she would refuse, her land would be attacked and destroyed in the name of the one true God who gave Solomon his supremacy.

All the queen's counselors were against it, as they have never heard of Solomon or his power. But she decided to take the trip and avert the wrath of God. Immediately she sent King Solomon a delegation of six thousand youths and maidens, all born the same year, month, day and hour. They were all of the same stature and all wore purple garments. And to the hoopoe she gave a letter promising the king that even though the trip from Sheba to Jerusalem usually took seven years, she would hasten to arrive in three years.

When she finally arrived, the queen was received with great honor and led to King Solomon's throne room. To her amazement, she saw that her own throne stood next to the King's!

One Ethiopian tale portrays Sheba and her prime minister dressed in man's clothes as they meet Solomon, but most accounts describe her arriving bejewelled and draped in dazzling robes.

Smiling, the King told her that he thought she would be more comfortable sitting on her own throne while visiting, so he sent a few of his demon slaves to bring it over the night before her arrival. Queen Balkys was impressed with the magic, but she knew that wisdom mattered much more, and wanted to find out if the king's wisdom matched his reputation. Therefore, she requested the right to pose three riddles to the king as a test. The king agreed, explaining to the queen that God's wisdom, not his own, gave him his power.

The first riddle was: "What is the ugliest thing in the world, and what the most beautiful? What the most certain, and what the most uncertain?"

The king answered: "The ugliest thing in the world is the faithful turning unfaithful; the most beautiful, the repentant sinner. The most certain thing in the world is death; the most uncertain, one's share in the World to Come."

The second riddles was: "What is it that in a storm at sea goes ahead of all; is the cause of praise for the wealthy; of shame to the poor; honors the dead and saddens living; is a joy to birds and a grief to fish?"

The king answered: "Flax. When woven into cloth it makes a sail for the ship, fine clothes for the rich, rags for the poor, shrouds for the dead. The birds delight in its seed; but the fish are caught in the nets made of it."

The third riddle was: "What land is that which has but once seen the sun?"

The king answered: "The land upon which, after the creation, the waters were gathered."

In addition to riddles which required a verbal answer, Sheba tested Solomon's ingenuity in action. Dressing five boys and girls identically, she asked him to detect their sex. When he handed them bowls of water for them to wash their hands, the girls, unlike the boys, rolled up their sleeves. Sheba also brought Solomon two flowers alike in appearance, but one was real while the other was artificial; he distinguished them by noting how bees swarmed to the flower with the genuine fragrance. Then, giving him a large emerald with a curved hole in the middle, she asked him to draw a thread through it; he sent for a silkworm, which crawled through the hole drawing with it a silken thread.

The Midrash Hachefez reports still another test of Solomon's cleverness. Sheba presented Solomon with the sawn trunk of a cedar tree, the ends cut off so that they looked the same; she asked Solomon which end had been the root, and which the branches. Solomon ordered the tree stump to be placed in water. When one end sank while the other floated, he said to her, "The part which sank was the root, and that which floated on the surface was the end containing the branches."

According to the Kebra Negast, the questions and tests were mutual; Solomon also challenged Sheba. Yet existing legends describe only a few of the artful strategies he used to outwit her. Determined to discover if the stories of her deformed foot were true, he arranged for a stream of water to flow onto the glass beside his throne (in the Qu'ran, he had running water with fish swimming about it under clear glass), so that Sheba would lift her skirts as she approached him. When she did so, he noted the hair on her legs, and told her, "Thy beauty is the beauty of a woman, but they hair is masculine; hair is an ornament to a man, but it disfigures a woman." He then invented a depilatory in order to acquaint her with his conceptions of womanhood.

During Sheba's six month visit with Solomon, she conversed with him daily. The Kebra Negast informs us that "the Queen used to go to Solomon and return continually, and hearken unto his wisdom, and keep it in her heart. And Solomon used to go and visit her, and answer all the questions which she put to him … and he informed her concerning every matter that she wished to enquire about." Frequently, they roamed Jerusalem together, as she questioned him and watched him at work.

Convinced of the King's wisdom, Queen Balkys offered to pay a yearly tribute and swear her loyalty. The king graciously refused all tribute, and requested to have her loyalty and friendship only. He promised to visit often when the queen returned to her home, because he had a great eagle that could magically take him to Sheba in one night. In addition, he offered her gifts which were even more valuable than those she brought him. The friendship between the two royal houses was assured, and both nations were happy.

Immediately, Solomon gave hera luxurious apartment in a palace next to his, and provided her with fruits, rose trees, silks, linens, tapestries, and 11 bewitching garments for each day of her visit. Daily, he sent her (and her 350 servants) 45 sacks of flour, 10 oxen, 5 bulls, 50 sheep (in addition to goats, deer, cows, gazelles, and chicken), wine, honey, fried locusts, rich sweets, and 25 singing men and women.

A gracious host, Solomon showed Sheba his gardens of rare flowers ornamented with pools and fountains, and the architectural splendors of his government buildings, temple and palace. She was awed by his work on the temple, by his great lion–throne and sandalwood staircase, and by his enormous brass basin carried by the twelve brass bulls which symbolized the twelve months of the year. She sought astronomical knowledge, for which he was known; Solomon had developed a new calendar which added an extra month every nineteen years.

Though there were economic and trade agreements – their open and heartfelt dialogues developed into more than just friendship and mutual admiration.

Were Solomon and Sheba lovers? Did Sheba lose her virginity to the King? The Bible does not say so directly. However, the Hebrew verb bw', which means "to come", is used to describe Sheba's approach to Solomon; this particular word also means coitus, and frequently in the Bible refers to entering a house for the purpose of sexual relations. The statement that "King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked" (as well as Josephus' explanation, "for there was nothing that she desired which he denied her" might also imply that he not only fulfilled her intellectual and material passions; he also fulfilled her sexual passion.

Ethiopian and Arabian accounts explicitly refer to sexual relations between Solomon and Sheba. The Kebra Negast describes that "he pondered in his heart, `A woman of such splendid beauty hath come to me from the ends of the earth! What do I know? Will God give me seed in her?'" He desired her, and she likewise may have desired him, but because she sought to retain her virginity in order to reign as queen, she refused him. After six months together, when Sheba contemplated leaving, he begged her to stay, and asked her to marry him. But she declined, most likely because she was committed to her own people, and was also unwilling to be a wife to a polygamous man, in a society where women had few rights.

Sheba may have been Solomon's lover, but she did not become his wife or remain with him much longer. After she had visited him for six months, she chose to return to her own country. Before she left, she gave Solomon 120 talents of gold (10 million dollars), precious stones and spices in great abundance, and highly prized sandalwood for his temple.

In the Biblical story, "Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked … besides that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty." Likewise, Josephus states, "Solomon also repaid her with many good things … bestowing upon her what she chose of her own inclination, for there was nothing that she desired which he denied her; and as he was very generous and liberal in his own temper, so did he show the greatness of his soul in bestowing on her what she herself desired of him."

Unlike the Bible and Josephus, the Kebra Negast provides details of Solomon's gifts – beautiful apparel, 6000 camels, wagons laden with luxurious goods, and vessels for travel over desert, air, and sea. Because she was now pregnant with his child, he also gave her a ring, for he hoped that she would bear him a son, who might in time visit Jerusalem and prove his identity to Solomon.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba was the culminating point of Solomon's life. After she left, he continued to write and speak words of wisdom, but he and Israel deteriorated. We might speculate that this deterioration was triggered not only by his increasing preoccupation with building a glorious palace and temple, but also by Sheba's return to her country. Never again would Solomon encounter or love a woman he could call her equal.

After she left, Solomon supposedly took 700 wives and 300 concubines, many who were foreign women who eventually "turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God."

Although God had commanded that he and the Israelites reject idolatry and the gods of other nations, Solomon built pagan temples for his many wives. In the region south of the Mount of Olives, referred to as the Hal of Shames, he constructed shrines to Ashtoreth, goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, goddess of Moab; and Milcom and Molech, goddesses of the Ammonites. He also honored Astarte, who was worshipped by many cultures, including the Sabaeans.

Although Solomon was known for his internationalism and his openmindedness to foreign cultures and their beliefs, his religious tolerance contributed to his downfall. Not only did he anger God; he also failed to unify his people, who needed their monotheistic practices in order to maintain religious identity and national pride.

The completion of his luxurious Temple became more important to Solomon than the practice of his religion. Then his luxurious Palace – built for personal rather than collective use – took precedence over the Temple. Finally, his writing and preaching of wisdom became increasingly divorced from experience.

Solomon no longer lived by the humane principles for which he had become respected and honored. Some historians even view him as a tyrant who became devoted to his own glory, and whose greed and extravagance led him to build his kingdom on injustice, oppression and misery.

Solomon drew tax lines across the old tribal borders, alienating tribal elders. For his costly architectural projects, he taxed mercilessly, forcing those who could not pay into slavery, and seizing their lands. Many starved and died. Raising a levy of 30,000 men for forced labor from Hebrews and non–Hebrews of his northern kingdoms, rather than his own people of Judah, Solomon divided his country. His people, including his own sons, became increasingly resentful, and began to revolt.

After his death, the northern kingdoms of Israel stopped tolerating the forced labor and high taxes which had fed Judah, and refused to accept Solomon's son Rehoboam as king. Civil war resulted; ten northern tribes set up their own kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam, leaving only the kingdoms of Judah and Benjamin to Rehoboam. Such internal strife only made the Israelites weak, and vulnerable to invasion. Eventually, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians conquered them, and carried them off into exile. While the Queen of Sheba's visit was a time of glory, it marked the beginning of the end for Solomon and all of Israel.

Sheba's life after Solomon was more fortunate. Upon returning home, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Ibn al–Hakim, "son of the wise man." Some Jewish, Islamic and Persian sources state that this child was Nebuchadnezzar (44); Ethiopians believe him to be David II (the name given him by Solomon), who later called himself Menelek, and who was the first king of the Ethiopian dynasty.

The Kebra Negast states that when Menelek was 12 years old, he began asking his mother about his father, and that when he was 22, he traveled to Jerusalem, bearing the ring which Solomon had given Makeda. Because Menelek's facial features, eyes, legs and gait were similar to his father's, Solomon recognized him instantly.

Rejoicing in his firstborn male heir, he wanted Menelek to be his successor, but Menelek refused. Although he remained for a time to study the laws of the Hebrews, Menelek, like his mother, chose to return to Sheba. Solomon was deeply grieved at his departure, and also dreamed of laying with Makeda, experiencing once again the glory that they had known together.

No existing Jewish or Christian documents refer to Sheba giving up her reign as queen, or insisting that only kings descending from Solomon should rule, or converting to Islam. Indeed, in the Bible, she offered respect to the Hebrew god, but returned to her own country and customs.

The Kebra Negast presents a different picture. Written to establish the Solomonic kings as the basis of the Ethiopian dynasty, and Islam as the national religion, it emphasizes her decree that "there shall be no more queens in Ethiopia, but only a man." Here she is portrayed telling Solomon, "Henceforward a man who is of thy seed shall reign, and a woman shall nevermore reign; only seed of thine shall reign and his seed after him."

She is described writing Solomon a letter, requesting that he send her a fringe from the holy Arc of the Covenant, so that the Sabaeans might reverence it. When Solomon demanded that his counselors send their eldest sons to Sheba to spread the religion of the Israelites, his counselors rebelled and arranged for the theft of the Arc, which was then secretly transported to Sheba.

After her visit to Solomon, Sheba continued to earn respect from her people for the wisdom she had gained and continued to gain, as a result of her commitment to learning, spiritual development, and benevolent leadership. She was also revered for her kindness to her people, and her capacity to live by her philosophical and religious principles.

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