Where Did the Queen of Sheba Live?
There is a legend in Ethiopia that her emperors are descended from the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, King of Israel, who died about 937 B.C. The story relates that Aksum, the once-splendid city on the high central plateau of Ethiopia, was formerly called Sheba.
It is said Queen Makeda of Aksum visited King Solomon at Jerusalem, and that their son, Menelik, became the first Ethiopian emperor. But Aksum in the time of Solomon was probably not large enough to have a ruler of such wealth and power as the queen of the story. However, there could have been such a Queen of Sheba in the Yemen, the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Queen of Sheba is a Biblical figure. The tale of her visit to King Solomon has undergone extensive Jewish, Arabian, and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Orient.
The queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones” (I Kings 10:2). “Never again came such an abundance of spices” (10:10; II Chron. 9:1–9) as those she gave to Solomon. She came “to prove him with hard questions,” which Solomon answered to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts, after which she returned to her land.
The use of the term ḥiddot or “riddles” (I Kings 10:1), an Aramaic loanword whose shape points to a sound shift no earlier than the sixth century B.C., indicates a late origin for the text. Since there is no mention of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C., Martin Noth has held that the Book of Kings received a definitive redaction around 550 B.C.
Virtually all modern scholars agree that Sheba was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, centered around the oasis of Marib, in present-day Yemen. Sheba was quite known in the classical world, and its country was called Arabia Felix. Around the middle of the first millennium B.C., there were Sabaeans also in the Horn of Africa, in the area that later became the realm of Aksum.
There are five places in the Bible where the writer distinguishes Sheba, i. e. the Yemenite Sabaeans, from Seba, i. e. the African Sabaeans. In Ps. 72:10 they are mentioned together: “the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts”. This spelling differentiation, however, may be purely factitious; the indigenous inscriptions make no such difference, and both Yemenite and African Sabaeans are there spelt in exactly the same way.
The alphabetic inscriptions from South Arabia furnish no evidence for women rulers, but Assyrian inscriptions repeatedly mention Arab queens in the north. Queens are well attested in Arabia, though according to Kitchen, not after 690 B.C. Furthermore, Sabaean tribes knew the title of mqtwyt (high official). Makada or Makueda, the personal name of the queen in Ethiopian legend, might be interpreted as a popular rendering of the title of mqtwyt. This title may be derived from Ancient Egyptian m’kit “protectress, housewife”.
The queen’s visit could have been a trade mission. Early South Arabian trade with Mesopotamia involving wood and spices transported by camels is attested in the early ninth century B.C. and may have begun as early as the tenth.
The ancient Sabaic Awwām Temple, known in folklore as Maḥram (the Sanctuary of) Bilqīs, was recently excavated by archaeologists, but no trace of Queen of Sheba has been discovered so far in the many inscriptions found there.