According to Ethiopian tradition, Makeda (10th century BC), the Queen of Sheba, had a son, Menilek I, by king Solomon of Jerusalem, thus establishing the “Solomonic” dynasty of Ethiopia that ruled, with a few interruptions, until the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie (q.v.) in 1974. Her story of the national epic of Ethiopia, as related in the Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), an historic-holy book that amalgamates Arabic and Jewish legends with indigenous themes. Her name and the location of her kingdom are vague to historians, but in Ethiopic her name means “not thus”, as when she announced, “not thus is it good to worship the sun, but it is right to worship God.” Her city was Dabra Makeda, built at her order as the capital of Ethiopia.
In the sixth year of her reign she learned from her head trader of the existence of a wonderfully-governed kingdom, Israel, and determined to visit its king and observe his methods. Her caravan took about 10 months to get through the Ethiopian mountains to the coast, cross the Red Sea and sands of Arabia. King Solomon received her cordially, and after six months’ study she concluded that his rule was successful because of the affection and respect he inspired, his organization of government, and his fairness and humility. He convinced her that Ethiopia should relinquish worship of the sun, and adopt worship of God, creator of the Universe.
As she prepared to depart it occurred to Solomon that he could beget a child from this beautiful woman. He implied that he had yet another art of government to teach her, provided a great banquet, and had her food liberally peppered, and her drinks mingled with vinegar - then suggested she should spend the night. “Promise you will not take me by force,” said Makeda. Solomon swore by God that he would not, if in turn she would swear not to take anything that belonged to him.
When Makeda became thirsty in the night, she drank water from a goblet placed at her bedside. Solomon, from his hidden vigil, saw her drink, and immediately claimed her - she had taken his water.
En route home, nine months and five days after leaving Jerusalem, she gave birth to a boy, whom she named Bayna Lehkem (“son of the wise man”). Despite the obvious loss of her virginity (a woman could be queen as long as she remained a virgin), Makeda continued to rule Ethiopia. When her son was 22 years of age, he insisted on meeting his father. Before he left for Jerusalem, Makeda reminded him that though the law in Ethiopia said a woman must rule, she had promised his father, Solomon, that “henceforth a man who is of thy seed shall reign,” and she would abdicate on her son’s return.
Despite every effort of Solomon to keep Makeda’s son with him, the young man honored his pledge to his mother to return to her side, and not to marry any woman in Jerusalem. He returned to rule Ethiopia, having taken the name “Menilek I”, accompanied by the eldest sons of the nobles of Israel. One of them delivered an oration praising the favorable climate and agricultural richness that they had found in Ethiopia, and then paid handsome tribute to its female monarch: “Thy wisdom is good and it surpasseth the wisdom of men … none can be compared with thee in intelligence … the understanding of thy heart is deeper than that of men, and thy wisdom exceeds Solomon in that thou hast been able to draw hither the mighty men of Israel.”
The Ethiopians believe that these elder sons who accompanied their prince brought from Jerusalem the original Ark of the Covenant, and this treasure is symbolized by a square oblong box kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox church.
Scholars and historians are fascinated with the variations of the legend throughout the Middle East and Africa, with its psychological implications for the interpretation of Ethiopian culture; artists and musicians for centuries have been inspired by its dramatic content; ordinary people use the expression “Queen of Sheba” as a symbol for sexuality, elegance and pride. In Addis Ababa, the legend is depicted in street-sold paintings that add elements that are not in the Kebra Negast, and follow a version told in northern Ethiopia - a tyrannical dragon-serpent is killed by Agabos, whose daughter, Makeda, succeeds him. The trip to Jerusalem proceeds, but on the fateful night Solomon also sleeps with Makeda’s maid-servant, who also gives birth to a son whose descendants, the Zagwé, usurp the throne between 1137 and 1270, after which the “Solomonic” dynasty of Makeda is restored. Since the Kebra Negast was committed to writing only at the beginning of the 14th century, a few historians view the entire story as a political justification for this “Solomonic” restoration. But that it is far more than this - an expression of national and religious feelings - is the consensus of Ethiopian a foreign scholars.
Chris Prouty Rosenfeld
E.A.W. Budge, The Queen of Sheba and Her Son, Menylek, (an English translation of Kebra Negast, meaning “The Glory of Kings”), London, 1922.
Guébre Sellassié, Chronique du régne de Ménélik II (“Chronicle of the Reign of Menilek II”), 2 vols, Paris, 1930-1931.
“I Kings, 10:1-13,”II Chronicles, 9:1-2,” The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, 1952.
D. N. Levine, “Menilek and Oedipus: Further Observations on the Ethiopian National Epic,” Proceedings of the First United States Conference on Ethiopian Studies, 1973, East Lansing, 1975.
E Littmann,The Legend of the Queen of Sheba in the Tradition of Axum, Leyden, 1904.
S. Pankhurst and R. Pankhurst, editors Ethiopia Observer, Vol. 1, No. 6, Special Issue on the Queen of Sheba, Addis Ababa, July, 1957.
J. B. Pritchard (editor), Solomon and Sheba, London, 1974.
E. Ullendorf, “Sheba,” The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1, Addis Ababa, 1975.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.