Mystery of an African queen
There are two versions of the legend of the Queen of Sheba – one set in Yemen and the other in Ethiopia. Catherine Arnold explores them both
Inspiration for films, paintings and feminists, the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is tantalisingly brief.
“She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones,” says the first book of Kings, chapter 10. By verse 13 she returns home. But, I often wondered, to where? In Yemen and Ethiopia apparently, anyone could tell me.
Unfortunately, they don’t agree.
On a rocky plain, lapped by the sands of the Rub al-Khali – the Empty Quarter – the ancient, Southern Arabian civilisation flourished. A massive dam and complex irrigation system turned the desert around the trading town of Marib into verdant orchards and, as Yemenis insist, the home of the Queen of Sheba.
It was an orange-crested bird which, according to the Qur’an, first brought news to King Solomon of a green land in the south, beyond the desert. There a fearsome queen ruled, and she worshipped the sun. Solomon sent the bird, a hoopoe, back with a letter of invitation and Belqis, Queen of Sheba, travelled to Jerusalem.
After being put through a series of tests, she finally entered a glass hall Solomon had built specially for her. Mistaking the polished glass for a pool of water, Belqis lifted her skirts, only to bare her hairy legs to the assembled courtiers. Shamed and awed by Solomon’s power, she turned to Allah.
With this story as companion, I bundle into a jeep on its way to Marib, today the main town in an oil-rich, north-eastern province of Yemen.
The Yemeni version
I never find early starts good for the imagination, still less so in a country where tea is stronger than coffee. Despite having given the world coffee – mocha takes its name from a port in southern Yemen – Yemenis brew only the outer husk of the bean, preferring to export the part that the rest of the world considers worth drinking.
Admittedly, with most of the population ruminating on qat, a mild amphetamine, they probably don’t a need caffeine boost. Unfortunately, as I set off with the pink mountain dawn, I do.
The Yemeni capital, Sana’a, is one of the highest in the world at 2,200 metres, the slouching modern city corseted by a ring of barren and pockmarked mountains. The Marib road twists and turns as it plunges through grotesquely fissured clefts as though trying to shake off the mountains. The very sterility of the landscape is much of its charm; uncluttered by plants, the raw shapes of the mountain resolve into fleeting figures and imaginary beasts as the car whizzes past.
Marib: Yemen’s palace ruins
By the time I reach Marib, the road has dropped over 1,000 meters to the very edge of the Empty Quarter. This is real desert: sand dunes, black, basalt lava flows, and scrub.
With the temperature rising and no sign of a tourist trail, I begin to wish the Queen of Sheba had chosen somewhere more temperate to live. And then, over the crest of a sand dune, in the midst of many more, the ruins of her palace suddenly appear.
Carved antelope curl across smooth stones, cavorting round runic inscriptions, and on the central dais, five austere pillars drop fat, black-fingered shadows over the yellowed stone and sand. Restive tribes and a shortage of funds have held back most attempts at further excavation, which leaves much of the complex still hidden by sand, but just on from the palace are the visible remains of an enormous dam and irrigation system.
Possibly constructed as early as 1000BC, the dam turned Marib into the “two paradises” of the Qur’an, lush with fruit trees. Standing at the foot of the mighty sluices and looking out over the searing desolation it’s almost impossible to believe that this land could once have been filled with bird-song and the court of the Queen of Sheba.
Sana’a: city from another time
But back in Sana’a, it isn’t so hard to imagine her in Yemen.
Old Sana’a is a Unesco World Heritage site and – quickly getting lost in a warren of alleys made gloomy by seven-storey, mud-brick houses – it is easy to see why.
Slim men in traditional, tribal dress sporting large daggers, lounge in doorways and shop fronts. Before each of them lies a carpet of twigs and discarded leaves and hamstered into a cheek is a massive bolus of qat. Women bustle past with baskets full of vegetables freshly gathered from walled gardens scattered around the city. The older ones bind their entire face in black gauze and drape a gaudy block-print cloth over their heads.
Like girls anywhere the younger generation don’t want to look like their grandmothers. Giggling and haggling over sequined and provocatively plunging dresses, all are in austere black burqas, most of which aren’t quite long enough to conceal their painted toes and cripplingly high stilettos.
Time seems to have paused, in this dreamy medieval city of wedding-cake houses and countless mosques. Perhaps, like me, it wants to linger a little longer under a mulberry tree with a sweet milk-tea, but at the airport it is pressing on and I have plane to catch. I’m booked on the 90-minute flight across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, where they tell a completely different story about the Queen of Sheba. There she is not Belqis, but the African Queen Mekeda.
The Ethiopian version
Today her former capital, Axum, is little more than a village, a sleepy jumble of whitewashed lean-to houses and small, half-built tourist hotels in northern Ethiopia. In one of the numerous roadside bars, armed with a cold, locally brewed beer, there is no shortage of people eager to practise their English and tell me more about the Queen of Sheba.
Here they recount how, on hearing tell of Solomon’s wisdom, Mekeda travelled from Axum, to quiz him in person. He passed her tests, fell in love with his beautiful guest and tricked her into bed. Trickery seemed to play a large part in these new stories I was being told about King Solomon, more famous in the west for wisdom than wiliness.
The one part of the tale on which Ethiopians and Yemenis agree is that the Queen of Sheba gave birth to Solomon’s son Menelik. Ethiopia’s last king, Haile Selassie, or Ras Tafari – as revered by the Rastafarians – claimed to be the last of his Solomonic line.
Axum: Ark of the Covenant
Many of Axum’s sights, including fields of huge, carved granite monoliths are so shrouded in mystery that to be shown the bath of the Queen of Sheba seems reassuringly factual. Part hewn and part built around a natural outcrop of bare rock, capped with a tangle of grass and tortured succulents, the setting, if not the bath itself, is superb.
Once a year in January the bath becomes the focal point for the Timkat, or Epiphany celebrations, when priests arrayed in golden vestments parade with a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The true Ark of the Covenant, as it so happens, is said to be just down the road in the church of St Mary of Zion.
Legend has it that Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to visit his father, Solomon. On the night of his departure, angels came to him and told him to take the Ark to Axum. Here it still rests, tended day and night by a solitary monk who will watch over it until his death. Sadly, everyone else just gets to see the peeling exterior of St Mary’s. Like the Holy Grail in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones epic, there is nothing to indicate that one of the holiest relics of two world faiths might lie within.
Ethiopia’s palace ruins
My final stop is the ruins of Queen of Sheba’s palace. A dusty half-hour tramp out of town, down a pitted mire of cow dung, mud and vegetable ends, I am cheered on by a personal army of souvenir sellers and aspirant guides. The floor plan of the 50-room palace is still clearly visible, and the Ethiopian Tourist Board has conveniently placed a viewing platform at one end.
From there, gazing over fields swaddled in green to the pepper-pot hills in the distance, I know where my queen would have lived. If historians can’t decide where the Queen of Sheba came from, then I’m happy to leave it to the imagination. It all depends on whether you’d rather head home with the image of a fearsome Arab queen forging paradise out of the desert, or of an African queen, quietly bathing in some limpid and moss-filled pool, languidly dreaming of wisdom and a far-off king.