Solomon And Sheba

As told in the Kebra Negast, a sacred book of Ethiopia

Thus spake Christ Jesus: “The Queen of the South shall rise up on the Day of Judgment and shall dispute with and condemn and overcome this generation who would not hearken unto the preaching of My word, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” Now the Queen of the South of whom He spake was the Queen of Ethiopia. And the words “from the ends of the earth” picture the great length of the journey, the heat, the danger of hunger and thirst, and hardships not easily borne by the frail body of woman. The Queen of the South was in face and form the most beautiful of women and her mind, which was God’s greatest gift to her, was of such exalted nature that she was drawn to Jerusalem that she might judge more nearly the mind of Solomon for thus was the will of God. The Queen had great wealth, for God had given her glory, and her riches were gold and silver and wondrous raiment, camels, slaves and caravans which journeyed for her by land and sea even as far as India and Egypt. And there was then in her service a certain captain of a caravan who had 520 camels and 370 ships and his name was Tamrin. When Solomon heard of this rich Ethiopian he sent him greeting and asked him to ship to him some of the produce of Arabia, gold and sapphires and the wood which no worm can consume. Tamrin, the merchant of the Queen of Sheba, made due delivery of his rich cargoes to Solomon and stayed several days in Jerusalem to admire the wisdom, the sweetness of words, and the skill with which Solomon ruled his people. Amazed at the wealth and splendour amidst which Solomon moved the merchant left at last to return to his land and report to his Queen all that he had seen during his stay in Jerusalem. When Tamrin saw the Queen he described to her as one of many marvels the great temple which Solomon was building, telling how there were 700 carpenters and 800 masons working upon it, and he praised the great beauty of its decoration. Day after day Tamrin related to the Queen stories of the wisdom, power and justice of Solomon until at last she began to question him about Solomon himself. The more she heard about him the more she marvelled until the desire to visit him grew within her. She longed to go, but the great distance and the terrors of the journey filled her with fear. Yet at length she could resist her desire no longer but gave out to all her people that she must travel to Solomon to learn wisdom and love from him. Then spake her nobles: “Lady, wisdom is not lacking in thee, and it is because you are wise that you love wisdom. As for us, if you go we go too: if you stay here we will stay also. We will die with thee and we will live with thee.” Tamrin made ready her caravan consisting of 797 camels and countless mules and asses; and the Queen set out on her journey.

On her arrival in Jerusalem, Solomon gave her royal welcome, paid her great honours and gave her apartments in his palace. A company of fifty singing men and maidens discoursed sweet music to her daily. Solomon came to her often and she was delighted with the courtesy of his behaviour towards her, his wisdom and judgment, his sweet voice and his eloquently fluent speech. Everything he spake was perfect, and she thanked God for bringing her to his threshold that she might hear his voice. And when he showed her the building of the House of God she saw that he was master in all matters, even to measurements and the instruction of the workmen in how the tools were to be handled; and she learned on another day that he knew the language of beasts and birds, and that he knew words of magic to compel all evil spirits to appear and do his will. This great wisdom God had given him because he had not asked God for wealth or glory, or great victories, only for wisdom. Now Solomon and the Queen held long and frequent converse, and the theme of his every discourse was the beauty of wisdom. And when Solomon had explained to her the might and power of God the Creator of all the World, the God of Israel, the Queen forsook the worship of the Sun and bowed before the One True God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

So Makeda tarried in Jerusalem for a space of six months and when this time was passed she sent for the King and spake thus: “Though I would willingly linger in thy presence that my wisdom might increase, yet must I now return to my own land.” Now when she gave him warning of her departure Solomon knew that he desired her in marriage, and he begged her to dwell with him still longer that she might be complete in wisdom. And the Queen consented and continued a dweller in his house. A great banquet was proclaimed in her honour and a place was set for her where she could see all and yet remain herself unseen. Her chamber where she sat was encrusted with bright jewels, rich carpets covered the floor costly beyond the wealth of men, and the tapestry was of royal purple heavy with perfumes and the scent of dried herbs which burned in lamps in every corner. And there was served to her within her perfumed bower a rich feast of dainties and she ate her fill of the highly- seasoned dishes and drank deeply of the spiced wines, for it was the wish of Solomon that the hotly flavoured bakemeats and the spiced wines should both stimulate her senses and cause her to thirst. Which was indeed so.

And when the feasting was done then Solomon approached the Queen, saying “Take thou thine ease here for love’s sake until daybreak.” And she said unto him: “Swear to me by thy God, the God of Israel, that thou wilt not take me by force.” Solomon said, “I swear unto thee that I will not take thee by force, but thou must swear unto me in thy turn that thou wilt not take by force anything that is in my house.” Then the Queen replied with laughter “Why being a wise man dost thou speak as a fool? Thinkest thou that I shall steal anything, or carry out of the house of the king, anything that the king hath not given unto me? Think not that I have come hither through love of riches, for my own kingdom is as wealthy as thine, and there is nothing that I wish for that I lack. Assuredly I have come only in quest of thy wisdom.” And Solomon said to her, “As thou wouldst make me swear, swear thou also to me, for swearing, is meet for both of us, so that neither of us be unjustly treated. And if thou wilt not make me swear I will not make thee swear.” “So be it,” the Queen made answer, “Swear to me that thou wilt not take me by force and I on my part will swear not to take by force thy possessions.” These oaths they swore.

Then the servants prepared a bed for the King on one side of the chamber and one for the Queen on the other side. And Solomon ordered a servant to fill a clean vessel full of water and place it where the Queen might see. Then the servant was bidden to leave them alone together.

Now Solomon’s orders to his servant had been given in the Hebrew tongue which the Queen could not understand. So in ignorance of what had been said the Queen retired to her bed. Shining pearls set in the roof lighted the room and Solomon watched by their radiance the Queen who had fallen into a light sleep. But soon Makeda was awake, her lips, throat and mouth all parched through eating the seasoned foods and drinking the spiced wines. Though she pressed her lips together and moved her tongue, no moisture would come to them, and at last she was driven to rise from her bed and drink from the pitcher which she had seen the servant set down in the room. For a while she watched Solomon closely to be sure that he slept, then quitting her bed she went with silent feet towards the water jar. But Solomon had not slept and when he saw the Queen reach out towards the pitcher he leaped up from his bed and forced her to stay her hand. Then spake Solomon: “Why hast thou broken thy oath that thou wouldst not take by force anything that is in my house? ” And the Queen in maidenly confusion made reply “Is the oath broken by my drinking water?”—to which the King retorted, “ Is there anything that thou hast seen under the heavens that is of more value than water?” And the Queen said, “I have sinned against myself and thou art released from thy oath; but let me drink water for the sake of my thirst.” Said Solomon, “Am I truly released from my oath which thou didst make me swear?” The Queen replied, “Be released from thy oath, only let me drink water.” He permitted her to drink of the water, and when she had drunk her fill he worked his will with her, and they slept together. And when they were made one and lay together there came to Solomon a strange dream in which he saw the sun come down from heaven and linger over Israel yet then pass over to Ethiopia.

Now with the sunrise the Queen pleaded with the King saying “Dismiss me, and let me depart for my own country.” So Solomon took a sorrowful leave of the Queen of Sheba, first loading her with many rich gifts and much costly raiment. He gave her six thousand camels and wagons to travel the long journey; also a ship to sail the seas, and a vessel which moved through air, the mystery of which had been shown to Solomon by God himself. Then were farewells exchanged with many and wondrous ceremonies, and as the caravan made ready to leave Solomon drew the Queen apart and gave her a ring from his little finger. “Take this,” he said, “that thou mayest not forget me. And if it shall chance that I obtain seed from thee, this ring shall be a sign of it, and if it be a man child, it shall come to me. And the peace of God be with thee. Go in peace.” So the Queen departed on her journey and when she had reached Bala Zadisareya she gave birth to a son nine months and five days after she had left Solomon. She came at last to her own country, and was welcomed by her people with great magnificence, thereafter ruling them with greater wisdom so that God made her kingdom more powerful still.


Now when the prince was come to his twelfth year he wondered who was his father, and his friends after much questioning told him, King Solomon. He then began to ask his mother questions about his father which she answered, saying at the same time that as his father’s country was so far away and the journey so long and dangerous it were better that he remained at his mother’s side. But ten years later, when the prince had grown into a bold and handsome young man and a great hunter, he announced to his mother his determination to seek out his father.

Makeda, since her return from Jerusalem, had put down idolatry and had converted her people to the faith of the God of Israel. But she still coveted the possession of the fringes of the Ark of the Covenant, in which she was certain wondrous virtue lay. When she was informed of her son’s determination she sent for him and after giving him the ring which Solomon had once worn on his finger, she made him swear that he would return to his own land and that he would not take unto himself a wife not of his own people. Then she sent for Tamrin, who had become her chief adviser, and charged him to take the prince to see the king in Jerusalem, but to be sure to bring him back again to his own country.

When the two travellers with their huge caravan arrived in Gaza the populace knew at once by his face and form that Ebna Hakim was the son of their King Solomon. Such was the likeness that some of the leading townsfolk sent messengers hurrying to Jerusalem, and when the cavalcade arrived there was not the slightest doubt in the King’s mind that the young man was indeed his own son.

After embracing him and kissing him, Solomon exclaimed, “He is handsomer than I, and his form and stature are those of David, my father, in his early manhood.” Then he arrayed the prince in rich raiment, and gave him a girdle of fine gold, and set a crown upon his head; and after placing a ring upon his finger he seated him on a throne as his equal. And the people hailed him saying, “He is an Israelite of the seed of David, being fashioned perfectly in the likeness of his father’s form We are his servants, and he shall be our king.”

Then Ebna Hakim gave Solomon the ring his mother had given him, and in return asked for the fringe of the Ark of the Covenant which the Queen coveted that her people might worship it for ever.

Now in due time there came Tamrin with a message to Solomon from the Queen saying:
“Anoint my son, consecrate him, bless him, and send him away in peace.”

Yet it was not Solomon’s will that the prince should leave, and he took great pains to persuade him that it was better to live in the land of the Tabernacle of the Law of God than to return to Ethiopia. But the luxury which Solomon showered on him and the life in Jerusalem had no charms for Ebna Hakim and he pined for his own country.

In vain did King Solomon plead with his son, pledging his word that he would name him as his successor. The young prince replied: “My lord, it is impossible for me to abandon my country and my mother. I swore to her by her breasts that I would return to her quickly, and that I would not marry a wife here.” Solomon, knowing at last that he could not turn his son from his purpose, summoned his councillors and confessed to them that he could not persuade the prince to remain in Jerusalem. Having failed in this he would decree that Ebna Hakim should be king of Ethiopia, and that the councillors should send their eldest sons to serve with him as they themselves served Solomon in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Then taking Ebna Hakim into the Holy of Holies they laid hands on him, and anointed him king, bestowing on him the name of David, and Zadok the priest revealed to him the mysteries by which a monarch rules his people and taught him the threefold law of Israel. And Solomon gave his son horses and chariots, camels, mules, great wagons, gold, silver, and all kinds of precious stones, that he might found in Ethiopia a new kingdom of Israel equal in magnificence with the old. But the councillors, while preparing their sons for the great journey, cursed Solomon for robbing them of their sons.

Now it chanced that the sons of the nobles who were to be the companions of Ebna Hakim met to discuss their future in the new country whither they were bound and their faces were darkened since they knew that they would never see their homes again. Yet their greatest fear was that when they left the city wherein rested the Ark of the Covenant and where was built the Shrine of Zion, the abode of God himself, God would no longer protect them, for they were going to a far off country where they believed there was no God.

And after much speech had passed between them, Azarias, the son of Zadok the High Priest, having sworn his fellows to strict secrecy, told them of a plan to end their doubts and fears.
“Let us take with us when we depart,” he said, “Our Lady of Zion. Do not ask me how—for I will show you. If you follow my plan boldly we shall be able to take Our Lady with us. And if we are discovered and they slay us, what matters that since we shall die for Our Lady.”

Then with money taken from his companions Azarias approached a clever carpenter whom he ordered to make planks of wood from which might be constructed a framework exactly equal in size to the Ark of the Covenant. He told the carpenter that they wished to make a raft lest they should suffer shipwreck, and when the workman gave them the planks they took them to the sanctuary of Zion and hid them beneath the coverings of the Ark.

That night an angel appeared to Azarias and told him to ask the young prince to request of King Solomon permission to offer up a last sacrifice. When Solomon heard this he was overjoyed and sent 100 bulls, 100 oxen and 10,000 sheep and goats, together with great quantities of bread and flour. And when the offering had been completed Azarias, the Lord being with him, called his friends together, and they entered the sanctuary—for they found all the doors unlocked. They carried the Ark away to the house of Azarias and put the structure of planks in its place, spreading the covers as before. And the Ark remained hidden seven days at the house of Azarias, covered in purple and with lamps set before it.

Now when all was prepared for the journey Ebna Hakim went to take farewell of his father and to receive the blessing of the king. The stolen Ark was placed on a wagon together with the stores and it was covered with piles of soiled clothes to hide it from sight. And as the sons of the nobles were about to depart, Solomon, remembering that Makeda had besought him for the fringe of the covering of the Ark sent for Zadok and told him to bring it, putting in its place a new covering which he would give him. And when this was done Solomon gave the old covering to the Prince who was overjoyed that his mother’s greatest wish had been granted. And Zadok, having removed only the outer covering when making the change, had noted nothing amiss.

Then Ebna Hakim and his followers went forth under divine protection for there marched always before them Michael, Chief of all the Archangels, who showed them the way by land and sea and made all smooth, spreading his great wings to shield them from the burning sun.

And as they journeyed neither man nor beast touched the ground, for even the heavy wagons were lifted up into the air, and there was not one in all the company who suffered either thirst or fatigue or any of the tribulations of travel.

Now their first halt was at Gaza, which was a gift of Solomon to the Queen before she left him, and a day later they came to Egypt, having travelled in that day a space so great that for the fastest of caravans it would be deemed a thirteen days’ journey. And when they were halted Azarias and his fellows made confession to the prince of what was done, and they calmed his fears by telling him that the Ark could not be sent back to his father since it had travelled with them not by the strength of man or of beast but by the will of God. Then they dressed the Ark before him and praised God for his mercies, and Ebna Hakim danced before the Ark.

So the Ark was dressed in purple and set on high in a great wagon and musicians and drummers made loud and jubilant music and the people shouted aloud. And the waters of Egypt stood still and the false gods fell down in their temples and were smashed in pieces as the Ark approached. Once more the caravan was lifted from the ground and they crossed the Red Sea at a height of three cubits while the birds of the sea sang together and all the creatures of the deep chanted the praise of Zion. And thus they came to the borders of Ethiopia.

Now Solomon, alone in his palace, was heavy of heart and as he meditated on all that was passed he remembered that he had dreamed an ill dream while Makeda slept beside him so he called for Zadok and told him the story of the dream. And when the aged priest had divined its meaning he trembled, for he knew that glory had passed from Israel to Ethiopia.

Then Solomon enquired of him if he had seen the Ark when he had changed the covering and Zadok shook with fear and said that he had not. So the King commanded him to delay not one instant but to hasten and see if aught of ill had happened.

Thus Zadok went to the sanctuary, and when he found nothing but the framework which had been set in place of the Ark he staggered and lay as one dead upon the ground. And when Solomon learned that the Ark was gone from him he despatched swift horsemen to capture Azarias and all his company, and he gathered his soldiers together and set out on the road to the south. But he went no further than Egypt for when he questioned the people of Pharaoh they told him that the prince’s caravan had left nine days before and Solomon knew that such speed was the will of God. Weeping and sick at heart he returned to Jerusalem and with the elders lamented bitterly for the symbol of God’s mercy which was passed away from Israel.

But Ebna Hakim, when he neared the coast of Ethiopia, sent messengers to herald his coming and to report that he carried with him the Ark of the Covenant, the Lady of Zion. And Makeda sent out a trumpeter to proclaim the wondrous tidings and started out with a great escort of soldiers for Aksum, the capital of her country, there to prepare a welcome for her son.

And the Ark shone like the sun in the heavens so that when the Queen saw it she bowed her head and clapped her hands and beat her breasts, laughing aloud as she danced before the Ark of Zion. Many tents and great pavilions were pitched around the city and there followed a feast so great that none saw its equal. And the Ark was enshrined in the fortress of Dabra Makeda and 1,300 men were set to guard the great tent in which it was placed.

And three days later the Queen stepped down from her throne in favour of Ebna Hakim and he became the master of 17,700 horses of war, 7,700 brood mares, and 1,000 mules, and robes of honour, gold and silver and everything of value, and the throne.

And Makeda made her nobles swear that they would never again set a woman upon the throne, and that only the seed of David, the son of Solomon, should reign over Ethiopia; and the nobles and councillors swore as she wished. Then the Queen made Azarias high priest, and the people abandoned augury, divination and magic, and they turned to the worship of the One True God.*

* The version of the Kebra Negast story told in this chapter is abridged and simplified. While acknowledging with gratitude the advice and help of Monsieur Adol Mar, Counsellor to the Emperor ; His Excellency Warqneh Martin ; and others, on various points of detail—I have followed the masterly version of Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, whose translation, especially in the dialogue, comes amazingly close to the spirit of the original.

Asfa Yilma.

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