When it comes to the Bible, tales of women with political, social, and spiritual authority are few and far between. But those who are included are difficult to miss.
Take Deborah: a radical, military commander who led a 10,000-strong army to victory against the Canaanites and earned the people of Israel 40 years of peace. Or the prophet Miriam, one of three leaders sent by God to bring Israel out of Egypt. Then there’s Huldah, a prophet whose counsel was sought by some of the most prestigious men in Judah, and who authorized the scroll of the law that would later become the core of scripture for Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps the most prominent, however, is the Queen of Sheba, who undertook an epic 1400-mile journey across the desert sands of Arabia, along the coast of the Red Sea, and over the Jordan River to satisfy her curiosity about the fame and faith of the King of Israel.
According to the Old Testament, the pagan monarch traveled with a caravan of riches to the court of King Soloman after learning of his great wealth and wisdom, and tested him with deep theological questions. “She came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones,” so the narrative goes, “and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart” (I Kings 10 v.1-13). In return for her retinue, King Solomon sat in conversation with the queen and gave her “all her desire,” after which she returned to her own land.
Though there is only one episode in the biblical story, the legend of the Queen of Sheba holds such magnetism that it has continued to fascinate for nearly 3,000 years. While no primary evidence has ever been unearthed to support the mysterious queen’s existence, there are records of the ancient country of Sheba dating from 715 BCE, which modern historians either believe to be the South Arabian kingdom of Saba in modern-day Yemen, or the Kingdom of Axum, in Northern Ethiopia. Even without historic proof, the tale of the powerful queen who ruled in her own right has been immortalized in the sacred literature of the Torah, the Koran and the Bible, and undergone colorful elaborations over the centuries as Jewish, Islamic, and Ethiopian cultures have claimed Sheba as their own.
There are two strands of history with the strongest connection to the Queen of Sheba, each related to one of the continents on either side of the Red Sea. According to Arab and Islamic lore, the Queen of Sheba was called Bilqīs, and ruled over a kingdom on the southern Arabian Peninsula. In this version, the Prophet Suleiman invites Bilqīs to Jerusalem after receiving word from a traveling hoopoe bird that, far away in the kingdom of Saba, a whole people were worshipping the sun instead of Allah. At first suspicious of Suleiman’s correspondence, Bilqīs eventually visits the palace. According to some tales, Bilqīs has a cloven hoof, which is reflected in the glass of the floor as she makes her ascent to meet the king. But most importantly, Bilqīs is so impressed by the profound wisdom and faith of Solomon, that she converts to monotheistic worship and brings the word of Allah back to her people.
On the other hand is the queen’s appearance in the Ethiopian national saga, the Kebra Nagast, which includes a description of her monarchy’s descent from the Solomonic dynasty in the 14th century. In this account, the Queen of Sheba, otherwise known as the beautiful queen Makeda, journeys from Sheba to Jerusalem, where she converts to Judaism. But this tale has a twist: Sheba embarks upon a secret love affair with King Soloman, and when she returns to her capital, Aksum, in Northern Ethiopia, she bears a son named Menelik, who is said to have founded the royal dynasty of Ethiopia. Years later, as an adult, Menelik travels back to Jerusalem, where he is joyfully received by Soloman, who tries to persuade his firstborn to remain in the kingdom. Despite his efforts, Menelik returns to Sheba, taking with him the Ark of the Covenant, a precious gold-covered wooden chest that many Ethiopians now believe resides in the courtyard of the Church of Maryam Tsion in Aksum.
Through this reading of the legend, the Kebra Nagast provides a means by which present-day Ethiopian rulers can trace their lineage and assert a divine right to rule as direct descendants of Makeda and Soloman. And despite lack of evidence to suggest the Queen of Sheba sat on the throne in Ethiopia, the Kebra Nagast situates the land of Sheba as ancient Ethiopia and its powerful queen as the mother of its nation, a declaration written into the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955 by Emperor Haile Selassie.
Whether the Queen of Sheba hailed from an Arabian or African kingdom will always be a source of debate unless new evidence is uncovered to prove her heritage. Even though her true identity remains a riddle, however, the enigmatic queen lives on in our imaginations. Sheba’s image has inspired medieval Christian mythical works, Turkish and Persian paintings, Handel’s richly orchestrated oratorio, and even an epic Hollywood romance, Soloman and Sheba (1959). In fact, the Queen of Sheba is the only female character to appear in all three of the great books of the Abrahamic faiths—the Torah, the Koran and the Bible (Kings 1:10 and Chronicles 2:9).
Despite contesting narratives, many historians believe that Sheba’s journey to Israel was in fact a diplomatic expedition to secure favorable trading agreements with King Soloman. The visit came at a time when Israel wielded significant power in the ancient Near East, and Soloman’s thriving desert nation sat at the crossroads of two major trade routes. The Queen of Sheba, with her great incense-trading kingdom, would likely have wanted to protect her merchant caravans and prevent competition between the new sea lanes and her overland routes. So, her visit could well have been a means to establish a mutually beneficial alliance. Much has been read into the biblical line that the King gave the queen “all she desired,” but in all likelihood, the sumptuous spices, gold, and gems presented by Sheba in the diplomatic ceremony were exchanged for political favors.
While the question of the Queen of Sheba’s true origin and intentions remains relevant, perhaps the more interesting inquiry is: What exactly makes her legend so captivating that it appears in so many cultures and endures to this day? Like many women of the ancient world whose profound beauty inspired nations, launched wars, and brought fearsome rulers to their knees, the purported majesty of Sheba is deep-rooted in the popular imagination. “In the figure of the Queen of Sheba, the beckoning and voluptuous Orient becomes embodied, its imaginative territory in classical sources encompassed meridian and outlandish exoticism, sensuality, wonder and luxuries,” argues Marina Warner in From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. In detailing the Queen’s caravan of riches and lavish gifts to King Soloman, scriptural descriptions of the queen’s life stir the “antique Myth of the Orient.” But Sheba’s fabled wealth and beauty does not define her, nor does she use it to beguile or manipulate her subjects, as is frequently depicted in Western artwork.
It is through the meeting between Soloman and the Queen of Sheba that we really begin to understand what made the queen extraordinary. Though the traditional narrative paints Sheba as a pagan worshipper who receives spiritual enlightenment from the wisest man on earth, it is precisely because King Soloman is impressed by her wisdom that he trusts her with everything he knows and understands. The queen is, in fact, an intellectual match, challenging the king and his administration to a duel of wits. In their book Raised From Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts, Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower posit that the queen was a “theologically capable and astute woman; a prime model of religious debate and insight.” Eloquent and fiercely intelligent, Sheba demonstrates an understanding of Soloman’s God, Yahweh, more thoroughly than the religious leaders being castigated by Jesus, and formulates theological judgements in tune with the word of God.
As a rare example of female rulership, adventurous spirit, and political understanding in the ancient world, it is perhaps the Queen of Sheba’s resolute sense of personal agency that has kept her legend alive for almost 3,000 years. Whether she was truly curious about the Jewish faith, motivated by international diplomacy, or simply felt inspired to cross the desert sands to see Soloman’s kingdom, the Queen of Sheba’s mission proved so compelling that three world religions celebrate her legacy, while her status as a feminist icon holds global currency. As Naomi Lucks writes in her book, Queen of Sheba: “The Queen of Sheba stands as an example for all women who want to leave home to explore the world, ask intelligent questions of it, and return home with more than they could ever imagine.”
A gracious queen and eloquent politician, founder of nations and powerful ruler driven by her desire for knowledge, the Queen of Sheba was a woman completely in control of her destiny.