Queen of Sheba: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Queen of Sheba is an ancient figure who was extremely important to many cultures, and yet we're not even sure what her real name was. In this lesson, we'll explore the stories about this enigmatic monarch.

The Queen of Sheba

Many historians have parsed through Jewish scriptures for information about the ancient world. When a specific person is named that historians don't know a lot about, it's intriguing. When that person also shows up in the Christian Bible, Islamic Qur'an, and foundational narrative of all Ethiopia, then it's something we simply can't ignore.

The Queen of Sheba is one of these figures. Unnamed in most accounts, this mysterious female monarch is described in numerous holy books as a great, wise, and wealthy woman who ruled without a king. Stories about the Queen of Sheba have persisted across North Africa and West Asia, winding into dozens of fantastic and apocryphal accounts. This has made her one of the most intriguing figures for historians, who have tried to track her through the millennia.

The Queen of Sheba is a mysterious figure who has remained important to many cultures.
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General Character and Story

There are countless regional folk stories that describe the Queen of Sheba, but when we boil it down there is a common narrative that winds through these accounts, as well as the three religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The basic story is that the Queen of Sheba was a woman of immense wealth and power. Her kingdom seems to have been somewhere in northwest Africa, and considering her wealth it's assumed that she controlled major trade routes, as well as some impressive gold mines. In all accounts, she is described as offering lavish and incredible gifts of gold, spices and other valuable items as part of her diplomatic interactions.

The Queen of Sheba was also renowned for her wisdom. In fact, she is so intelligent and clever that she appears in these religious texts as a potential equal to Solomon, the 10th century BCE king of Israel who is generally upheld as the wisest figure in Jewish history. It's important to remember that Solomon lived long before any split between Judaism, Christianity and Islam (all of which have a shared history).

The Queen of Sheba was renowned for her wealth and bestowed lavish gifts upon Solomon.
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In all accounts, the Queen of Sheba is a pagan monarch who comes to Jerusalem to meet with Solomon and test his fabled wisdom. She is so wise that her questions are challenging even to the great king, but he ultimately answers them to her satisfaction. This convinces her to convert to the monotheistic worship of Yahweh/God/Allah and she takes the faith back to her people. According to most accounts, she goes back pregnant (she and Solomon apparently got along quite well).

Variations in the Story

The essential narrative of the Queen of Sheba is that she came, tested Solomon, and left with his religion. However, every account adds something a little different to that. For example, some Jewish accounts have made her into a queen of demons, with a cloven foot that Solomon spies by polishing his floors to the point of becoming mirrors.

In most Jewish descriptions, however, she is simply a really rich queen. Her kingdom (queendom?) is generally described as being where Yemen and Ethiopia are today. In 2012, British archaeologists uncovered a major gold mine and temple in Ethiopia, which date to the same time period as the Biblical accounts of the wealthy queen. However, the 1st century CE Jewish scholar Josephus said that she was a queen of Egypt as well as Ethiopia. There are some historians who believe the Queen of Sheba may have been related to a line of pharaohs, but this is uncertain.

In Islam

In Islamic tradition, the Queen of Sheba is often named as Bilqis, although it's unclear where this name came from. The most commonly repeated story in Islamic traditions is that Solomon impressed her by having her own throne brought to his palace before she arrived (in some accounts there is a level of magic required to do this). Solomon uses this to convince her that Allah is omnipotent and all-powerful.

Solomon and Bilqis in 14th-century Islamic art
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