The Many Lives of the Mysterious Queen of Sheba

By: Dave Roos  | 
Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon
The Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon is depicted in this woodcut engraving after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter). Published in 1877. ZU_09/Getty Images

The Queen of Sheba makes only a brief appearance in the Hebrew Bible, but her legendary visit to the court of King Solomon sparked centuries of speculation about the true identity of this powerful, wise and beautiful woman to whom even the mighty Solomon gave "all she desired and asked for."

Some historians claim that the Queen of Sheba was actually the powerful Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut, a female monarch whose wealth and territory eclipsed Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Other scholars wonder if the Queen of Sheba existed at all, since no archaeological evidence has been found for her, so far. Perhaps, they say, she was like Lilith, a mythological figure symbolizing a strong female threat to male authority.

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When Deborah Coulter-Harris was growing up in Boston, one of her mother's favorite retorts was, "Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?" Now an English professor at the University of Toledo, Coulter-Harris spent three years researching and writing a book about the bewitching biblical figure called "The Queen of Sheba: Legend, Literature and Lore."

We spoke to Coulter-Harris about the intriguing connections between Sheba and Hatshepsut, and why she thinks that Sheba's storied encounter with Solomon, while certainly fictionalized, could be based on a real-life meeting of two competing ancient moguls.

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The Queen of Sheba in the Bible

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the Queen of Sheba makes her only appearance in the book of 1 Kings (the account is repeated almost word for word in 2 Chronicles).

According to the story, the queen heard about the "fame of Solomon," particularly his wisdom, and came to test him with a series of "hard questions." From this we can assume that the queen herself must have been highly intelligent in addition to incredibly rich. We're told that she arrived in Jerusalem with a caravan of camels carrying "large quantities of gold," precious stones and spices.

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The Queen of Sheba doubted the rumors she'd heard about Solomon's greatness, but found that they didn't tell half the story. She was so "overwhelmed," the Bible says, by the majesty of Solomon's court and Temple complex, that she gifted the Israelite king 120 talents of gold (worth an estimated $3.6 million today) and more spices than Solomon had ever seen.

"She's not even given a name in the Hebrew Bible account," says Coulter-Harris. "She brings Solomon 5 tons [4.5 metric tons] of gold and then she goes back 'to her own country,' and that's it."

The only other biblical references to the Queen of Sheba were in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, in which Jesus says that "the Queen of the South" (whom his listeners would have recognized as the Queen of Sheba) would judge the Pharisees and lawyers who asked for a sign that he was the promised messiah, "for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here."

The name "Queen of the South" aligns with one popular theory that the biblical kingdom of Sheba (or Saba) was located in the southern Arabian Peninsula near modern-day Yemen. But not everyone buys the claim that the Queen of Sheba came from Yemen, Coulter-Harris included.

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Beyond the Bible: The Queen of Sheba Legend Grows

Over the centuries, the Bible's barebones account of the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba has been fleshed out by additional religious texts and folktales.

Gina Lollobrigida, Solomon and Sheba
Actress Gina Lollobrigida portrays the Queen of Sheba in the 1958 movie "Solomon and Sheba." The film got poor reviews but was a box office success.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In the Quran, the foundational scripture of Islam, the Queen of Sheba is given a name, Bilqis, and it's Solomon who first hears about her fame. In the Quranic account, Solomon (called Sulaiman) is so powerful that he can talk to animals and commands supernatural creatures called jinns. A hoopoe bird tells Solomon that the Kingdom of Sheba ("Saba") is ruled by a woman named Bilqis who "has been given everything and ... possesses a magnificent throne."

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When Solomon hears that the queen and her people worship the sun and other idols, he has the hoopoe bird deliver a letter asking Bilqis to convert to Islam. The queen's advisers tell her to rise up against Solomon, but instead she sends him expensive gifts, which the wealthy king rejects and then threatens to invade Sheba himself.

Humbled, the Queen of Sheba journeys to visit Solomon. Before she gets there, Solomon has his jinns and magicians transport the queen's throne to Jerusalem. When the queen arrives and sees her throne, she's convinced that Solomon is a prophet and converts to Islam. She also mistakes the shiny throne room floor for water and shamefully lifts up her skirts to avoid getting wet, exposing her hairy legs.

In the ninth century C.E., the story of Sheba and Solomon was picked up again by Jewish rabbis in elaborate biblical commentaries known as "midrash" and "aggadah." In these later accounts, based on centuries of Jewish folklore, we learn that the Queen of Sheba presented Solomon with a series of riddles about women and gender, topics that a typical man wouldn't know much about. But when Solomon answered correctly, the queen was so impressed that she converted to Judaism.

But the most complete and colorful treatment of the Queen of Sheba comes from the 14th-century Ethiopian epic called the "Kebra Nagast." In this tale, the queen is named Makare and she's the ruler of Ethiopia. After visiting Solomon and converting to Judaism, the queen is tricked into sleeping with Solomon and she gives birth to their son, Menelik.

When Menelik grows up, he goes back to Jerusalem to meet his famous father. By a twist of fate, Menelik ends up returning home to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant, which was stolen by Jewish nobles from the Temple and stashed in Menelik's caravan without his knowledge. In a dream, Solomon is told about the theft, but God decrees that the Ark should remain in Ethiopia, where some believe it still resides.

Other legends and folktales depict the Queen of Sheba as only half human, either a demigod or a demon, says Coulter-Harris. In Classical Arabic folklore, Bilqis was the daughter of a human king and a jinn mother, giving her supernatural powers, and in Eritrean legends, her legs were more than just hairy.

"According to the Eritrean account, seven saints were killing a dragon and dragon blood fell on one of the queen's feet, transforming it into a donkey's foot," says Coulter-Harris. "In a lot of these stories, the Queen of Sheba has some kind of deformity of the leg or the feet."

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Was Hatshepsut the Real Queen of Sheba?

In her book, Coulter-Harris cites a number of tantalizing clues that connect the biblical Queen of Sheba to the real-life queen Hatshepsut, the mighty female pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.

Ruling during the 18th Dynasty (15th century B.C.E.), Hatshepsut was the widowed queen of Thutmose II. After Thutmose II's death, Hatshepsut was meant to rule as a temporary regent while her stepson Thutmose III came of age to be pharaoh. But whether it was personal ambition or political necessity, she soon proclaimed herself pharaoh.

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To cement her authority, Hatshepsut erected monuments depicting herself as a man with the elongated beard and ceremonial garb of a male pharaoh. Hatshepsut renamed herself Ma'at kare, which translates as truth, order and justice. Indeed, her rule corresponded with a time of great wealth and territorial conquest.

There are clues that potentially align Hatshepsut with the Queen of Sheba, explains Coulter-Harris. The first is linguistic. In the Ethiopian tradition, the Queen of Sheba's name has always been Makare. When she became pharaoh, Hatshepsut changed her name to Ma'at kare, which is pronounced almost exactly like Makare.

Then there's Josephus, the first-century C.E. Roman-Jewish historian, who described Hatshepsut as the "Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia," another piece of evidence that connects the Pharaoh Ma'at kare of Egypt with the Makare of Ethiopian-Jewish legend.

Queen Hatshepsut
A statue of Queen Hatshepsut was found at her temple in Luxor, Egypt.
Michelle McMahon/Getty Images

As for the hairy or deformed legs, that might be a reference to Hatshepsut's actual physical appearance. She's always portrayed in men's clothing, which would have been shocking enough to ancient eyes, but there are sources that also say her mummy showed signs of balding, facial hair and a skin disease, which might explain the mystical references to deformity in folklore.

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The Problem With the Hatshepsut Hypothesis

Coulter-Harris is the first to admit that there's a major problem with identifying Hatshepsut at the Queen of Sheba. Most historians place Hatshepsut squarely in the New Kingdom period, living from approximately 1500 B.C.E to 1450 B.C.E. Solomon, meanwhile, ruled from 970 to 931 B.C.E.

That's a 500-year gap, but historians like Immanuel Velikovsky have proposed that the conventional timeline of Egypt and Ancient Israel are off by five centuries, placing Hatshepsut's reign contemporary with Solomon.

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If that's the case, says Coulter-Harris, then Hatshepsut and Solomon would have been jockeying for power and trade in the region, and Hatshepsut likely had the upper hand. After all, no archeological evidence remains of Solomon's supposedly massive kingdom, while Hatshepsut's temples still stand.

"If the Queen of Sheba was really Hatshepsut, then her fame probably outshone Solomon," says Coulter-Harris. "The authors of the Hebrew Bible didn't want to take away from the glory that was Solomon's empire, so they portrayed Hatshepsut as 'wowed' by Solomon's wealth. Meanwhile, he may have just been an insignificant king of a small, backwater country whose wealth was exaggerated."

Even if Hatshepsut did predate Solomon's reign by 500 years, the biblical account could still be a reference to the great female pharaoh whose wealth and fame were seared in the memory of Africa and the Middle East. How better to show the God-given authority of a male king than to show him outwitting a legendary pagan queen, followed by her conversion to monotheism?

"She could have just been symbolic or used as propaganda to show how powerful King Solomon was, but I don't buy that," says Coulter-Harris. "I think Hatshepsut and Solomon were contemporaries and I think she visited Jerusalem for political and economic reasons."

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