Blogs > Cliopatria > Who Was the Queen of Sheba?

Aug 8, 2005 5:02 pm


Who Was the Queen of Sheba?



Olivia Ward, in the Toronto Star (April 3, 2004):

The Queen of Sheba, legendary lover and ally of Israel's King Solomon, has sparked the curiosity of historians, religious scholars, archeologists and writers for centuries. But 3,000 years after her supposed lifetime, debate still rages over her existence.

At a time of ongoing hatred in the Middle East, the story of Sheba stands as one of religious harmony and co-operation between two prosperous civilizations which met on equal terms to forge a beneficial alliance. It transcends the conflict and conquest that have repeatedly turned the region into one of the most troubled on Earth.

The search for the storied queen is a great archeological puzzle, and an inspiration for those who have questioned whether peace is possible in the Middle East.

On the front line of research are two groups of Canadian experts, from the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Calgary. And, they say, there is good reason to believe that Sheba existed - although not in the form that the Old Testament, the Qu'ran, and the Ethiopian-based Christian and Rastafarian religions have recorded.

"Was there a Queen of Sheba, as the legends describe? Probably not," says Bill Glanzman, an assistant professor of archeology in Calgary, and field director of two projects investigating evidence of Sheba's kingdom in Yemen. "But there were certainly queens in south Arabia, where the rulers would be certain to marry and establish dynasties."

Whatever Sheba's identity, most signs point to her birth in southern Arabia around 960-920 B.C.

In the Bible's 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9, she makes a fleeting but indelible appearance as a woman of intellect, curiosity and courage. Determined to see whether the equally legendary Solomon was as wise as his reputation, she set off across 1,000 kilometres of desert in a massive caravan to test him with probing questions.

Convinced by his answers, she "gave the king 120 talents of gold, and of spices very great store and precious stones."

Similarly impressed, Solomon "gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked."

In Islamic legend, that included healing and religious instruction; the queen, who suffered from a deformed foot, gave up sun worship and converted to "the God of the Israelites" after Solomon cured her ills. The two then married.

But in Ethiopian legend, the queen - whose name was Makeda - returned home to bear Solomon's child, Menelik, whom Ethiopian Christians claim as their ancestor and founder of the Negus dynasty. Rastafarians, too, believe they are descended from Sheba.

Arabic legends identify Sheba as Bilqis, a sun worshipper who ruled "with the heart of a woman and the head and hand of a man."

Later myths of the Queen of Sheba abound, with the character of the monarch wildly contradictory.

In Jewish stories she is a sorceress who conjures up "6,000 boys and girls all born the same hour, the same day, month and year," and sends them to Solomon. In the new Latin Bible, she's a beautiful black woman who dutifully bows to the "true faith."

In the Ethiopian chronicle, the Kebra Negast, Sheba is driven by intellectual curiosity, "thirsting for wisdom" rather than romance. And the 15th-century Italian author Boccaccio describes her as a reformer: "Nicaula, a famous queen of Ethiopia and Egypt," who shunned the idle life of her lavish court to seek the sober counsel of Solomon.

But it is Sheba's seductive physical presence that resonates throughout the ages in art and literature.

Hollywood made the most of it in the 1959 King Vidor epic Solomon and Sheba, in which Gina Lollobrigida's voluptuous pagan vamp challenges the pious, steely-eyed Solomon, played by Yul Brynner....


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