Queen of Sheba
The character of the Queen of Sheba appears in the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is the subject of much legend and interpretation in Jewish and Ethiopian traditions. Known as Bilkis in Islamic tradition and Makeda in Ethiopian tradition, this symbol of a powerful female ruler is thought to hail from an Arabian or African kingdom south of Judea. According to Josephus, she was the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. [jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/queen-of-sheba-bible].
In the Bible (1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9), the Queen of Sheba appears before King Solomon in Jerusalem after hearing about his wealth and wisdom, and tests him with “hard questions,” often interpreted as riddles. She brings with her gold, spices, and precious stones, and “King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for.” (1 Kings 10:13)
This account has led to elaboration and commentary, as well as debate. The most elaborate account of this visit appears in the Targum Sheni Esther, an apocryphal translation and embellishment of the book of Esther, written sometime between the fourth and eleventh centuries. This account includes a story of the encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (known as “The Colloquy of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon”) and shares commonalities with the Quran’s depiction of King Solomon in Sura 27, and scholars debate which text influenced which.  In this retelling, the Queen of Sheba, in a faraway land filled with precious natural resources, is summoned by Solomon to appear before him. This version describes Solomon’s desire for Sheba, as well as noting her unusually hairy legs. Some scholars connect her with the “dark and lovely” Shulamite woman described in the Song of Solomon 1:5.
This account, as well as a variety of midrashim (Hebrew commentaries), elaborates on the riddles with which she tested Solomon, as well as the details of their relationship. Some sources, including the Targum Sheni (Aramaic translation of the Book of Esther) recounts three riddles, while the Midrash ha Hefez details nineteen riddles.
Phrases such as “King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for” (1 Kings 10:13) and “she came” (1 Kings 10:1) have led to suspicions of a sexual relationship between Sheba and Solomon. Yet this relationship is also a topic of controversy. Talmudic commentators argue that the Hebrew word for kingdom (malchut) of Sheba is mistranslated as queen (malchat) of Sheba, meaning that all references to a particular woman or queen refer instead to a region, therefore undoing all possibilities of a sexual relationship with Solomon.
“The Queen of Sheba” story in Howard Schwartz’s Leaves from the Garden of Eden is from Germany, sixteenth century (drawn from the text Ma’aseh Nissim, a collection of the commentaries of thirteenth and fourteenth century philosopher Nissim ben Moses, compiled by Jeptha Yozpa ben Naftali (Amsterdam, 1696) and is a variation of “The Fisherman and His Wife” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Schultz explains that “the Queen of Sheba plays a wide variety of roles in Jewish Folklore—from heroine in the folklore of the Ethiopian Jews. . . to a demonic witch and seductress in both Jewish and Arabic folklore, where she is identified with Lilith.”  The comparison to Lilith “originates in the Targum (a translation and commentary) to Job 1:15, where Lilith is said to have tortured Job in the guise of the Queen of Sheba. It is based on the Jewish and Arabic legend that the Queen of Sheba was actually a genie—half human and half demon.”  Furthermore, “the riddles of the Queen of Sheba were said to be the same ones with which Lilith seduced Adam (Livnat ha-Sappir). 
The Queen of Sheba’s encounter with King Solomon has inspired artistic representations, both classical and modern, and has been the subject of scholarly writing as well as a 2002 exhibition at The British Museum entitled The Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. Ethiopia is home to much Sheba-focused lore, and this early image (circa 1100–1200s) from a fresco is on view at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Displayed in the context of Christian religious iconography, this image portrays the Queen of Sheba on a horse with figures thought to be Mary and St. George.
During the late nineteenth century, which was a period of archeological discoveries, many of the antiquities discovered served as inspiration for artists. The Middle East and Egypt were particular areas of interest, and Edward Poynter’s 1890 painting The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon reflects this Orientalist fascination. The artist’s architectural detail and accuracy are notable in this painting, and some objects, such as the lions flanking the stairs, are based on actual discoveries during the time period.
The fascination with the Queen of Sheba has continued over the years. She was the subject of Alexander Archipenko’s 1961 series of sculptures exploring concave and convex shapes and the human female form.
More recently, artist Ana Maria Pacheco created a series of monoprints, entitled Sheba and Solomon, depicting four parts of the story of the encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, including one depicting Solomon inspecting the Queen’s hairy leg as she lifts her skirt to step into the water.
In Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid artist Dina Goldstein chose to represent Lilith (see related essay in this section) as the Queen of Sheba in one of her photographs from the series Snapshots from the Garden of Eden.
The Queen of Sheba has also inspired music and popular culture, including several films.
Fox Picture’s 1921 film The Queen of Sheba, starring Betty Blythe and Fritz Leiber tells the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon’s romance. A spectacle that included lavish sets, risqué costumes, and 500 camels, the footage was lost in a fire in the Fox vault in 1931. Several other cinematic renditions of this story exist, including the 1959 film Solomon and Sheba starring Yul Brynner.
The story of Sheba and Solomon’s encounter is also told in Act Three of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Solomon (1748). This musical piece tells three stories from King Solomon’s life, including the Queen’s visit to Solomon, yet leaves an air of mystery around the nature of their relationship. The first performance took place on March 17, 1749 at the Covent Garden Theatre in London, featuring Caterina Galli as Sheba. Act Three contains a lively passage for strings and two oboes, which has become known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, and was featured at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Listen to George Frideric Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from the oratorio Solomon (1749) [Audio sample]
As a symbol of female strength and beauty, the Queen of Sheba is an icon, particularly among women of color. Les Nubians—a Grammy-nominated French musical duo—French sisters of African heritage, wrote and performed a tribute to the Queen of Sheba, called “Makeda” (1989). This song recalls the queen’s power and magnetism, with lyrics like:
Makeda was queen, beautiful and powerful
Solomon dreamed of her black skin
I sing to revive the memories
To dig up the knowledge
That the spiral of time erases
The queen of Sheba lives in me
Makeda lives in me.
[Read the full translated lyrics]
1. Scholars debate the date of the writing of Targum Sheni Esther, dating it between the fourth and eleventh centuries. The Quran was written in the seventh century.
2. Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 406.
3. Ibid., 406.
4. Ibid., 407.