For other uses, see Sheba (disambiguation).
See also: Sabaeans
A Sabaean priestess, who intercedes with the sun goddess on behalf of the donor. Probably first century.

Sheba (/ˈʃbə/; Ge'ez: ሳባ, Saba, Arabic: سبأ, Sabaʾ, South Arabian , שבא, Šəḇā) was a kingdom mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Quran. Sheba features in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, particularly Ethiopian Christian, traditions. It was the home of the biblical "Queen of Sheba", who is left unnamed in the Bible, but receives the names Makeda in Ethiopian and Bilqīs in Arabic tradition.

The predominant scholarly view is that the biblical narrative about the kingdom of Sheba was based on the ancient civilization of Saba in South Arabia,[1] in contradiction to several local traditions from different countries. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman write that "the Sabaean kingdom began to flourish only from the eighth century BCE onward" and that the story of Solomon and Sheba is "an anachronistic seventh-century set piece meant to legitimize the participation of Judah in the lucrative Arabian trade."[2] The British Museum states that there is no archaeological evidence for such a queen but that the kingdom described as hers was Saba, "the oldest and most important of the South Arabian kingdoms".[3] Kenneth Kitchen dates the kingdom to between 1200 BCE until 275 CE with its capital, Ma'rib.[4] The kingdom fell after a long but sporadic civil war between several Yemenite dynasties claiming kingship,[5][6] resulting in the rise of the late Himyarite Kingdom.

Biblical tradition

The two names Sheba (spelled in Hebrew with shin) and Seba (spelled with samekh) are mentioned several times in the Bible with different genealogy. For instance, in the Generations of Noah[7] Seba, along with Dedan, is listed as a descendant of Noah's son Ham (as sons of Raamah, son of Cush). Later on in Genesis,[8] Sheba and Dedan are listed as names of sons of Jokshan, son of Abraham. Another Sheba is listed in the Table of Nations[9] as a son of Joktan. Another descendant of Noah's son Shem.

There are several possible reasons for this confusion. One theory is that the Sabaean established many colonies to control the trade routes and the variety of their caravan stations confused the ancient Israelites, as their ethnology was based on geographical and political grounds and not necessarily racial.[10] Another theory suggests that the Sabaeans hailed from the southern Levant and established their kingdom on the ruins of the Minaeans.[11] It remains a theory however and cannot be confirmed.

The most famous claim to fame for the Biblical land of Sheba was the story of the Queen of Sheba, who travelled to Jerusalem to question King Solomon, arriving in a large caravan with precious stones, spices and gold (1 Kings 10). The apocryphal Christian Arabic text Kitāb al-Magall ("Book of the Rolls"),[12] considered part of Clementine literature) and the Syriac Cave of Treasures, mention a tradition that after being founded by the children of Saba (son of Joktan), there was a succession of sixty female rulers up until the time of Solomon.

Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, describes a place called Saba as a walled, royal city of Ethiopia that Cambyses II renamed as Meroë. He writes that "it was both encompassed by the Nile quite round, and the other rivers, Astapus and Astaboras", offering protection from both foreign armies and river floods. According to Josephus it was the conquering of Saba that brought great fame to a young Egyptian prince, simultaneously exposing his personal background as a slave child named Moses.[13]

Muslim tradition

In the Quran, Sheba is mentioned in surat an-Naml in a section that speaks of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon.[14] The Quran mentions this ancient community along with other communities that were destroyed by God.[15]

Bilqis reclining in a garden, Persian miniature (ca. 1595), tinted drawing on paper
Illustration in a Hafez Frontispiece Depicting Queen Sheba, Walters manuscript W.631, around 1539

In the Quran, the story essentially follows the Bible and other Jewish sources.[16] Solomon commanded the Queen of Sheba to come to him as a subject, whereupon she appeared before him (an-Naml, 30–31, 45). Before the queen had arrived, Solomon had moved her throne to his place with the help of a jinn. She recognized the throne, which had been disguised, and finally accepted the faith of Solomon.

Muslim commentators such as al-Tabari, al-Zamakhshari, al-Baydawi supplement the story at various points. The Queen's name is given as Bilqis, probably derived from Greek παλλακίς or the Hebraised pilegesh, "concubine".[17] According to some he then married the Queen, while other traditions assert that he gave her in marriage to a tubba of Hamdan.[18] According to the Islamic tradition as represented by al-Hamdani, the queen of Sheba was the daughter of Ilsharah Yahdib, the Himyarite king of Najran.[19]

Although the Quran and its commentators have preserved the earliest literary reflection of the complete Bilqis legend, there is little doubt among scholars that the narrative is derived from a Jewish Midrash.[18]

Bible stories of the Queen of Sheba and the ships of Ophir served as a basis for legends about the Israelites traveling in the Queen of Sheba's entourage when she returned to her country to bring up her child by Solomon.[20] There is a Muslim tradition that the first Jews arrived in Yemen at the time of King Solomon, following the politico-economic alliance between him and the Queen of Sheba. However, that tradition is suspected to be an apologetic fabrication of Jews in Yemen later transferred to Islam, just like many other traditions.[16]

Muslim scholars, including Ibn Kathir, related that the people of Sheba were Arabs from South Arabia.[21]

Ethiopian and Yemenite tradition

Main article: Orthodox Tewahedo

In Ethiopian tradition, the Sheba (Saba in Ethiopic) who was Joktan's son is considered their primary ancestor, while Sabtah and Sabtechah, sons of Cush, are considered the ancestors of the Cushites.

Traditional Yemenite genealogies also mention Saba, son of Qahtan; however, they claim Sabaean descent not from him, but from yet another Saba not mentioned in scripture who was said to be a grandson of Ya'rub and a great-grandson of Qahtan.

In the medieval Ethiopian Kebra Nagast, Sheba was located in Ethiopia.[22] Some scholars therefore point to a region in the northern Tigray Region and Eritrea, which was once called Saba (later called Meroë), as a possible link with the biblical Sheba.[23] Donald N. Levine linka Sheba with Shewa (the province where modern Addis Ababa is located) in Ethiopia.[24]

Speculation on location

The location of the kingdom mentioned in the Bible was long disputed.[25] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman suggest that the kingdom was located in southern Arabia.[26]

Owing to the connection with the Queen of Sheba, the location has become closely linked with national prestige, and various royal houses claimed descent from the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. According to the medieval Ethiopian work Kebra Nagast, Sheba was located in Ethiopia. Ruins in many other countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran have been credited as being Sheba, but with only minimal evidence. Even a massive earthen monument of the Yoruba people in Nigeria known as Sungbo's Eredo is held by Yoruba oral tradition to have been built in honour of the powerful queen Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo, who is often equated with Queen Bilqis.[27]

See also


  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sabaʾ
  2. Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman,David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition p. 171
  3. "The kingdoms of ancient South Arabia". Archived from the original on May 4, 2015. Retrieved 2013-02-22.
  4. Kenneth A. Kitchen: The World of Ancient Arabia Series. Documentation for Ancient Arabia. Part I. Chronological Framework and Historical Sources p.110
  5. D. H. Muller, 1891; Mordtmann, Himyarische Inschriften, 1893 p. 53
  6. Javad Ali,The articulate in the history of Arabs before Islam Volume 2 p. 420
  7. Genesis 10:7.
  8. Genesis 25:3.
  9. Genesis 10:28
  10. Javad Ali,The articulate in the history of Arabs before Islam Volume 7 p. 421
  11. HOMMEL, Südarabische Chrestomathie (Munich, 1892) p. 64
  12. Kitab al-Magall
  13. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews II.10
  14. Wheeler, Brannon (2002). Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-8264-4956-6.
  15. Qur'an 50:14
  16. 1 2 Yosef Tobi (2007), "QUEEN OF SHEBA", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 16 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 765
  17. Georg Freytag (1837), "ﺑَﻠٔﻘَﻊٌ", Lexicon arabico-latinum, Schwetschke, p. 44a
  18. 1 2 E. Ullendorff (1991), "BILḲĪS", The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 1219–1220
  19. A. F. L. Beeston (1995), "SABAʾ", The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 8 (2nd ed.), Brill, pp. 663–665
  20. Haïm Zʿew Hirschberg; Hayyim J. Cohen (2007), "ARABIA", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 3 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 295
  21. Brannon M. Wheeler. "People of the Well". A-Z of Prophets in Islam and Judaism.
  22. Edward Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible (Oxford: University Press for the British Academy, 1968), p. 75
  23. The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant: The True History of the Tablets of Moses, by Stuart Munro-Hay
  24. Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopia Culture (Chicago: University Press, 1972)
  25. Michael Wood, The Queen Of Sheba, BBC News
  26. Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman,David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition p. 167
  27. Nigeria News, 4 June 1999, "Archaeologists find clues to Queen of Sheba in Nigeria"


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