Friday, March 2, 2012

Legend and Mystery-The Queen of Sheba

Queen-  1. a: the wife or widow of a king  b: the wife or widow of a tribal chief
2. a: A female monarch  b: a female chieftain 
3. a: a woman eminent in rank, power, or attraction  b: a goddess or a thing personified as female and having supremacy in a realm c: an attractive girl or woman
 A partial definition from Merriam Webster

(An Arabian Queen)

I Kings 10:1-13 (NIV)
1 When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the LORD, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. 2 Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. 3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. 4 When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, 5 the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at[a] the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.
 6 She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. 7 But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. 8 How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! 9 Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”
 10 And she gave the king 120 talents[b] of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
 11 (Hiram’s ships brought gold from Ophir; and from there they brought great cargoes of almugwood[c] and precious stones. 12 The king used the almugwood to make supports[d] for the temple of the LORD and for the royal palace, and to make harps and lyres for the musicians. So much almugwood has never been imported or seen since that day.)
 13 King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country.

(The Arabic interpretation of King Solomon)

       The Queen of Sheba.  Never has a name been so legendary, so contradictory, and so mysterious.  Who was she?  Did she even exist?  I have to admit this week's topic is one of my own choosing.  I've been thinking about this one since Sunday.  I was looking for something totally unrelated in II Chronicles, when I stumbled across the story of the Queen's visit to Solomon.  Of course, as a kid in Sunday school, I often heard the story, but the 25 verses in the Old Testament were all I knew (13 in I Kings, 12 in II Chronicles).
When I came across the story last week, my curiosity was renewed.  That led me to head to the library, and I will share with you what I learned.

     The Queen of Sheba (Saba in Hebrew) shows up in the holy texts of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians.  She is mentioned in the histories of several countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and even Nigeria.  Makeda, Bilqia, and Nikaulis are some of the names that have been attributed to her.  She is the inspiration for stories spanning a great romance with Solomon, her possible heritage as half djinn (genie), and even as a demon.  The story in the Bible was written down by an anonymous scribe of King Solomon, the sixteenth son of King David.  It is the only direct evidence of her existence that has been discovered to date.

                   (the ruins of the temple at Marib, called Bilqis Temple)

 Claimed by many countries, the Queen of Sheba has long been a source of fascination to historians who wanted proof of her existance and heritage.  What do we know for sure?  Her name was not Sheba.  That is the name of her kingdom in southern Arabia.  She must have lived and ruled sometime around the 10th century B.C. because that is when Solomon ruled.  Her country was known for trading.  It was wealthy in gold, incense, and spices which were much in demand in the known world.  Most accounts show she was strong, confident, and wise.  Here is where the rest becomes speculation.

     In recent years, archaeologists have begun to explore previously untouched areas.  In Yemen, where it is believed the Queen of Sheba ruled, they are beginning to excavate the ancient city of Mirab, and a temple there is promising.  There are also records from Ethiopia of a queen named Makeda from Ophir.  Scholars believe this was the name for Saba.  The dates are close as well.  In Ethiopian history, Makeda became a queen when her father died.  She is said to have had a child with Solomon named Menelik.  This child became king, and his descendants ruled until the Italians took over Ethiopia. 

(Menelik I)

     Some historians suggest that the Queen's great legend comes from her being a combination of several women rulers, and that the stories have solidified into one great queen.  There were many strong female rulers in Egypts, Ethiopia, and Arabia between 800 and 1050 B.C. so this is a possibility. 

     There is a great deal of debate surrounding the queen's appearance as well.  While she clearly wasn't European as many paintings depict, it isn't certain if she was Arabic or African.  Many accounts describe her as beautiful.  Some describe very hairy legs.  There are some more outrageous stories that say she had a donkey's hoof or goat's hoof.  Aside from that, little is mentioned about her appearance. 

(An artist's rendering of the Queen of Sheba)

     The kingdom of Saba is only recently of great interest to archaeologists, so not much information is available.  We do know that Yemen is located on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, on the Red Sea.  Across the sea lies the horn of Africa.  Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djbouti, Sudan, and Egypt are all nearby.  Travel by sea was easier than travel by land in those days.  This allowed goods and cultures to flow easily between those countries.  In the 10th century B.C., Saba was a new kingdom.  The capital was Marib.  Historians estimate around 20,000 people lived there, and that a series of dams on the Wadi Adana allowed them to farm enough to feed everyone.  Marib is located in the mountains at the edge of the Arabian desert.  It is about 100 miles from the sea.  They had trade goods which were in high demand.  They had camels, and saddles, a written language, a wealthy elite, and several smaller cities.  Saba was well placed and ready to gain power.
 (Map of the Middle East.  Note the locations of Yemen, Israel, and Ethiopia)

     The next question many scholars ask is, would it have been possible for the queen to have learned of Solomon, and then to travel to Jerusalem?  Even at that time, traders and travelers moved throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  A trader or messenger could well have brought the news of Solomon.  Some even think a man named Timran could have been that messenger.  The queen would have had the means to travel to Jerusalem.  She may have been motivated by curiosity, the prospect of trade, or reasons of her own.  The journey would have been long, dangerous, and difficult, but not impossible. 

(A camel caravan in the Arabian Desert)

     Her caravan likely followed the Incense Road some 1500 miles through the desert.  It would have taken at least 75 days one way, with a long rest in between.  Her arrival in Jerusalem at the time was probably not impressive.  It was a small city of about 2000 people sitting on top of a hot, dry hill.  Solomon's palace was impressive, but Jerusalem wasn't. 

(An artist's rendering of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem based on excavations)

     And what of the questions she asked Solomon when they met?  The Biblical account doesn't say.  Hebrew legends give a variety of riddles, often numbered at 22.  Most likely, the questions were trade related, but we will probably never know.

     What about the great romance?  This is based on the last verse of the story.  "King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty."  Many felt this was code for intimate relations.  It is possible that they sealed trade deals with intimacy, as that was not uncommon at the time, but it's just as possible that his bounty was in the form of food or other goods.  Some later accounts try to make the queen into a schemer, a gold-digger, or even a tempting demoness.  Those accounts probably come as a result of a woman who traveled alone such a long distance to have intelligent conversation with a man. 

     At this point it seems like a lot of speculation and very little fact.  Unfortunately, that is what I have learned about this ancient queen.  Much of what we "know" about the Queen of Sheba is based on oral history, legend, and those 25 verses.  My research left me with more questions than answers.  My next stop is to read Sheba by Nicholas Clapp.  Maybe I will revisit this topic with more information some day.  It's always possible that a big discovery could happen in Yemen or Ethiopia.  In the meantime, this legendary queen will remain a mystery.