The history presented in the Kebra Nagast begins with a romance between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba during her visit to his court in Jerusalem. Ethiopia’s ruling dynasty claims descent from Solomon and Sheba’s son, Menelik I. Twenty years later, on a visit back to meet his father, Menelik’s caravan spirits away the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred object that Solomon built his famous temple to house, and which Ethiopia still claims to possess.
What evidence exists outside the Kebra Nagast that Solomon had a romantic relationship with the Queen of Sheba? In both Africa and Arabia, the existence of a person called “The Queen of Sheba” is documented in ancient stories and artwork. The Bible includes a fairly detailed description of her visit to Solomon’s court. Outside the Bible, Sheba is explicitly described as Solomon’s lover, sometimes his wife as well, while the Old Testament drops hints but does not commit itself to a definite relationship beyond royal friendship. At the end of this hub I add some speculations of my own about this legendary pair.
Arabic Traditions of Solomon and Sheba
In the Koran the Queen of Sheba’s given name is Bilquis, and the Muslim tradition adds the detail that her journey to visit Solomon was not her own idea, but prompted by an invitation from him. As a wise man and a prophet, Solomon aims to convince the queen to worship the One God rather than worshipping the sun. This seems to suit the Arab view of females, even queens, in need of male guidance. Only this tradition mentions the marriage of Bilquis to Solomon, again perhaps a nod to Arab mores. While the story differs in some details, an Arab tradition including not just a meeting between Solomon and this foreign queen, but an established romantic relationship, supports the idea that this story has some basis in fact, and is not only an invention of the 10th century Ethiopian monarchy. A late date for the Koran places its writing about 750 AD, and many claim earlier dates.
King Solomon and Makeda Meet In the Kebra Nagast
The Kebra Nagast, by contrast, presents the Queen of Sheba as a strong personality in her own right. She rules Ethiopia, and her name is Makeda. Her foot had been deformed in an encounter with a dragon when she was a girl. Though a wealthy and powerful ruler, she values wisdom more than anything else, and when she hears of the wisdom of King Solomon, she decides she must see him for herself. Solomon welcomes her, and as she steps across the threshold of his palace, her cloven foot is miraculously healed. (The Arabian version differs here – the queen’s deformed foot turns out to be an unfounded rumor, and Solomon is relieved to see her two perfect feet as she lifts her hem to step over his threshold.) Solomon spends plenty of time with his visitor, imparting his wisdom. Makeda is grateful, but at last says she must return to her own country. Solomon talks her into one last dinner at his palace, then into sleeping in the same room with him, and lastly trips her up with some verbal gymnastics and tells her she is now committed to come into his bed. The next morning she leaves: she gives birth to Solomon’s son back in Ethiopia.
Solomon and Sheba in I Kings Chapter 10
The Old Testament’s version of the Queen of Sheba’s visit makes no mention of Solomon and Sheba spending the night together. Taken at face value, the account describes the meeting of two highly intelligent sovereigns, who part with mutual regard. But read through the passage, and the romantic if not sexual overtones are impossible to miss. “When she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. So Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing so difficult for the king that he could not explain it to her.” Solomon was no fool, and what better way to woo a woman both powerful and intelligent? Solomon’s effect on the Queen is described: “And when the Queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon…there was no more spirit in her.” This can be taken as being stunned by the depth of Solomon’s insight, or perhaps she was swept off her feet. They exchange expensive gifts, and the text notes, “Now King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, besides what Solomon had given her according to the royal generosity.” Though Solomon outdoes Sheba in monetary value, the book of I Kings praises her gifts for uniqueness. The man has more “strength” while the woman is more “special,” a good description of the balance of power between lovers. The text continues, “There never again came such abundance of spices as the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” Given the Old Testament association of spices with sexuality, now the double entendres are really flying.
So is the Bible saying Solomon and Sheba were lovers? Certainly not directly. And flirtation between sovereigns is hardly surprising. Queen Elizabeth I was a famous flirt: she favored handsome male courtiers who flattered her and were great dancers. She more than hinted at the possibility of romance and marriage with visiting single kings. But while she might dress to the nines, bat her eyes and keep the court up half the night dancing, she also guarded her reputation as the Virgin Queen. “I will have only one mistress, and no master,” she said once of her prolonged singleness. All this is to say, a single queen can use beauty and sexuality to enhance her power, but she is on a slippery slope if she gives in to seduction. Henry VIII had any number of public mistresses without diminishing his political power: the rules would be different for his daughter Elizabeth, who at least publicly would have to content herself with flirtation.
The Old Testament’s account of Sheba’s visit may be romantically charged, but the Queen departs with dignity, rather than with an announcement that Solomon finally got his way with her. Is the silence because nothing happened? Is it because Solomon developed a chivalrous amnesia? Was a sexual relationship only hinted at because Solomon would look a little sleazy if he had to bed every unmarried woman in the city, even dignitaries? Was the respect aimed at the Queen of Sheba, a potentially powerful ally?
My Own Thoughts About Solomon and Sheba
When I first read of a child between Solomon and Makeda, I confess I thought myself into her shoes, and it all made perfect sense. There was a third possibility to the diplomatic flirtation of the Old Testament, and the sexual manipulation of the Kebra Nagast: what if Sheba had a baby in mind from the beginning? She needed an heir, didn’t want a husband, and couldn’t turn up pregnant by just anyone. But what if she returned home with the child of a powerful king, a king conveniently too far away to interfere with her life? Is it possible, I thought in my own devious mind, that not only does the Old Testament politely not tell the whole story, but what if the Kebra Nagast is also presenting an “official” version of what happened?
To use the example from above, Queen Elizabeth had a similar dilemma. If she married, her power diminished. If she took a lover, her subjects wouldn’t respect her. But where could she get an heir? In Elizabeth’s case she never did, and the throne of England passed on her death to the Scottish King James. In contrast, the Kebra Nagast has the Queen of Sheba returning to Ethiopia carrying the child of the most respected king of her time. This neatly solves the biggest practical difficulty in her life, and founds a dynasty that lasts three thousand years.
In my own reflections, the best course would have been for Makeda to confide in no one, wait to see how events played out, and maintain plausible deniability. The journey could always be explained as a quest for wisdom. She would want to spend some time with Solomon, build rapport, consider her plan. To maintain her dignity, he must make the decisive move. She needed to be not just seduced, but “tricked.” After all, this wouldn’t really be held against her: everyone knew Solomon’s reputation as the shrewdest negotiator in the world. As long as she put up a decent amount of resistance, her reputation wouldn’t suffer too much. She may have reflected that many would quietly triumph in Solomon outsmarting a powerful woman, while still sympathizing with her as the victim of a superior intellect. If all went according to plan, she would head home in possession of both her independence and an heir to her throne.
The above of course, is entirely an invention of mine. Neither text imputes motives of this calculating sort to Sheba’s 1,400 mile journey. I just wish Elizabeth had had such an alternative.
This series will continue with more exploration of Ethiopia's Christian heritage.
Victoria on December 22, 2016:
Thanks for this hub. Interesting reading. Looking forward to further reading about the Ark of Covenant, and Ethiopia's claim to having it.
graceomalley (author) on January 11, 2015:
Sunardi - Thank you for more information about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Sunardi from Indonesia on January 11, 2015:
King David and King Solomon had ability to speak with animals. In the Quran they talked with ants, Hoopoe, etc. This Hoopoe who announced King Solomon about the Queen of Sheba. I wrote about this story https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Lessons-f... . This ant becomes the name of the Surah of Quran "An Naml" in Enlgish 'The Ant'
Your Hub gave me additional (even more) facts about King Solomon as. I also read on Jews website and it has a little bit different story.
graceomalley (author) on March 02, 2014:
Mohammad- Thank you for the information! I appreciate it. I need to do more research and give attributions where i found my information.
Mohammad on March 02, 2014:
I will try to limit my comments the "Arabic Traditions":
1- The Koran does not give the queens name, but refers her as the Queen of the land of "Saba" (Sheba). "Saba" is the area South-West of the Arabian peninsula (now in Yemen). The area in question had been ruled Ethepea for a great part of its history, which makes it reasonable that some may refer to a queen of "Saba" as Etheopean.
2- The name "Balqees" is not from the Koran, but rather from Arabic history. Arab historians are in agreement as to the accuracy of the name.
3- The visit is indeed referenced in the Koran as having been been prompted by an invitation from Solomon, and is in line with his position as prophet and messenger of the one true God whose task to enjoin humanity to worship God alone. The queen's need for guidance is not because she is a woman, but is in line with the need by all humanity for guidance.
4-There is no authentic Arabic/Islamic tradion that Solomon had any sort of relationship with Bilquis (romantic or otherwise), other than that of a prophet and messenger with a person who accepted the message he was sent with. The Idea of a marriage between the two is from texts which Muslim Historians refer to as "israelite" stories, meaning that their source is Judeo-Christian tradition. Such stories are deemed to be "hearsay", which is not to be believed NOR dismissed, unless ofcoarse there is authenticated Islamic evidence to support or negate it.
graceomalley (author) on November 14, 2013:
Thanks for reading. This is a fascinating subject.
Mehboob A. Ahmed on November 14, 2013:
These by gone days to me are very very Interesting.
graceomalley (author) on January 27, 2012:
andargie- I have to write more about the ark - it is a fascinating subject. It is on my list of hubs to write!
andargie on January 27, 2012:
i am interesiting to ark
graceomalley (author) on June 13, 2011:
Thanks for visiting, jeanine!
jeanine on June 13, 2011:
graceomalley (author) on April 26, 2011:
James - I've got to write more about the Ark of the Covenant. That's what got me interested in Ethiopia in the first place, but then so many other details got interesting, I kind of lost my focus on the Ark.
Glad you liked the hub!
James A Watkins from Chicago on April 26, 2011:
Fascinating! I enjoyed your musings very much, and even more the history and writings you explicated. I am particularly intrigued that you wrote the Ethiopians claim to possess the Ark of the Covenant. Thank you for this reading pleasure. Well done!
graceomalley (author) on April 14, 2011:
wingedcentaur - I think the answer to your question would be in how the Kebra Nagast is treated by the Ethiopian Church. My impression is that both the Ethiopian church & the nation draw their identity from the narrative of the Kebra Nagast - believing that God chose them to be the guardians of the Ark. In that way it seems to me the Kebra Nagast is more important to them than the Old and New Testaments we are more familiar with. The Ethiopian Church had no exposure to the Council of Trent, where the Western Church decided which writings were "inspired" and which were not. Consequently, they don't separate the Kebra Nagast from other sacred writings - it is part of their canon.
As far as the issue of what is considered "scripture" or what is "the word of God," I think it is important to remember that the Ethiopian Church is an Orthodox tradition. The whole concept of the Bible as the "word of God" is more Protestant. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, ect. traditions, while they have sacred writings, don't view them in the same way as Protestant evangelicals.
Thank you again for visiting my hubs!
William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on April 12, 2011:
I like your solution to Queen Makeda's dilemma, graceomalley. It makes the most sense.
By the way, about the Kebra Nagast. In Ethiopia, you say that it is scripture, as we understand the Old Testament and New Testament. Was any claim ever made about divine inspiration regarding the Kebra Nagast? Is it considered a divinely-inspired book?
graceomalley (author) on March 31, 2011:
no body- Thank you for reading and commenting! My own thoughts on the wisdom, and the morality, of physical involvement with a visiting Queen: I think also Solomon liked women. The 700 wives I expect were political marriages, but I think he could have politely turned down more brides after the first hundred or so. (Even Ramsees the Great had only a little over 100 wives.) The fact he also had 300 concubines speaks to just plain old liking women, and variety as you mentioned, since these were probably not politically motivated unions.
I think one has to remember that sexual morality, and the definition of adultery itself, was a bit different at this time. The pinch came with David when he took another man's wife to bed. Had David seen a lovely virgin bathing, and had her brought to the palace, there would have been no problems with morality. Not asking the father's permission first would be less than perfect, but given David's popularity almost all Jewish men would be happy he wanted their daughter. In a case like that, David would pay the brideprice for a virgin, and everyone is happy - the woman would belong to him with no question.
As late as medival Europe the definition of "adultery" was a man having sex with another man's wife. A married man who slept with an unmarried woman was not classified as "adultery," and this man's wife could not charge him with it, or separate from him because of it. She could legally separate from a husband who slept with a married woman - because that meets the definition of adultery. I'm not saying that people thought this behavior was alright, (they mostly didn't) but society tolerated it, and didn't place it in the same class as adultery.
The Queen of Sheba was unmarried, and therefore a union with her would not qualify as adultery - Solomon would be trespassing on no man's rights. As a powerful sovergeign in her own right, her child is not going to suffer. On the contrary, the child would be undisputed heir to a throne.
I think you and I would probably agree that God's intention in marriage is equality in sexual rights, but this was not practised in ancient Israel, where husbands had alot more leeway in sexual behavior than wives. Not until the New Testament is the idea that husband and wife have the same sexual rights within marriage presented. (I think this was revolutionary at the time, though we modern people take it for granted.)
(Also, I'm not entirely sold that Solomon did have a physical relationship with Sheba. I think it is possible, esp. given the number of legends that have grown up around them. But I think another possibility is that they had only respect for each other, and another that they may have even fallen in love but never consummated their feelings.)
I think the question of Solomon's wisdom and his romantic relationships is an interesting one. The Old Testament states as explictly as possible that Solomon's downfall resulted from "clinging fast in love" with his forgeign wives. God granted Solomon supernatural wisdom - why wasn't he able to avoid sinning against God so obviously? I think this would be a good topic for a hub.
Robert E Smith from Rochester, New York on March 31, 2011:
Interesting thoughts on Solomon and Sheba. You know though that the same God was on the throne with Solomon as with his father David. Now David was held to a high standard with regard to his exploits with Bathsheba. I do not think Solomon would be held to any lesser standard. David had more than one wife and had trouble handling situations that arose and Solomon multiplied that trouble by hundreds of times. He was truly wise to be able to not go crazy trying to please so many women. I must confess that I see his wives and concubines and sexual life as unwise but I will ask the Lord about that when I get home. Now on to Sheba. I think that Solomon loved variety. How could he not? How did he think which wife to entertain tonight? When he saw this beautiful smart powerful queen how could he not have sprung to attention. But he WAS wise. Complications and adultry and illigitamate birth that would have made his Lord mad like happened with his mom. He had gone through that "David's illigitamate son" thing all his life. I do not believe he would do that and incur not only God's wrath but make the child live with that kind of hard life he lived before he came to power.
graceomalley (author) on March 25, 2011:
Monisaja-Glad you enjoyed the hub! This is a subject which has interested me for so long.
Monisajda from my heart on March 23, 2011:
I enjoyed reading your hub. I also liked that you included your own thoughts, that makes it even a better read. I like your speculation about the heir to her throne. Good comparison to Queen Elizabeth, too. Voted up and awesome!