Chris Bradley – author, lecturer and ADFAS Travel tour leader – searches for the mysterious Queen of Sheba in the highlands of Ethiopia.
The Queen of Sheba is a difficult woman to pin down. She possibly lived in Ethiopia or Yemen about 3,000 years ago, might have become wealthy on the trade of frankincense and myrrh to Ancient Egypt, and perhaps visited King Solomon in Jerusalem. The problem is, we have no evidence that she ever existed, just a few intriguing stories that spice up the Bible and Koran. She carries identical gifts and plays the same role representing the pagan world in the Old Testament, as do the Magi of the Nativity in the New Testament. Maybe she is just symbolic, but after 30 years of study, I’m convinced that she really did exist.
The pagan-worshipping kingdom of Sheba (Ancient Saba) certainly existed and it had a great number of queens throughout its two millennia controlling the incense trade around the Red Sea and Arabia. The frankincense burnt by the high priests as offerings to the Gods of Ancient Egypt in the temples along the River Nile had to be of the highest possible quality. So did the myrrh used in the complicated process of mummifying a Pharaoh’s body before burial inside the lavishly decorated tomb. The best quality of both of these tree resins (Boswellia Sacra and Commiphora Myrrha) grows in the region of Dhofar in southern Arabia. To what extent Sabaean territory stretched across the Red Sea from South Arabia into Africa is debatable, but the corridors of this incense trade pushed deep into the Ethiopian highlands, en-route to the great natural highway of North-East Africa – the River Nile, running northwards into Egypt.
The oldest stone building in Ethiopia (and indeed sub-Saharan Africa) is situated along such a trade route at Yeha. It was a pagan temple dedicated to the Moon God Ilmukah, part of an astral triad worshipped by the ancient Sabaeans. Even after 2,800 years the temple is in a remarkable state of preservation, mainly due to its conversion into an early church when Orthodox Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the 4th century. A delightful frieze of small ibex heads carved onto one of the large stone blocks shows a link with South Arabia where the animals were revered for the way they survived in the harshest of desert climates – just as the overland traders had to endure as they struggled across the deserts and mountains bordering the Red Sea.
The Queen of Sheba would have had several regional capitals to control her vast territory, including Axum in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. The main trade route ran from the Red Sea port of Adulis through Yeha to Axum, an important crossroads of relatively easy routes in an otherwise difficult mountainous terrain. Axum grew wealthy from the levied taxes on these valuable goods and still has some remarkable monuments to be seen today. The most striking are a series of erected carved stele which are essentially giant tombstones, the largest being 24 metres high, which you might have already seen – when it was placed just down the road from the Colosseum in Rome – after being looted by Mussolini’s army in 1937. It was returned to Ethiopia by the Italians in 2005.
Each stele stands upon a flat stone plinth above a burial chamber, some of which have been excavated to reveal a series of small rooms. The largest stele lies in pieces, felled by an earthquake – some legends say it was toppled by the later rebellious Queen Judith – but when erected at 33 metres, it was taller and heavier (over 500 tons) than any of the raised obelisks in Ancient Egypt. These giant works of art belong to the Axumite period – an ancient kingdom (trading with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians) that replaced the Sabaeans and lasted for a thousand years from the 4th century BC – during which time they adopted Christianity and even mounted an attack on the holy city of Mecca around the same time as the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Even before Islam, Mecca was home to the ‘House of God’ (better known now as the kaaba), reputedly constructed by Abraham around 1,700BC, and a sacred place that the Queen would have known well.
The Axumite stele are not old enough to date from the time of the Queen of Sheba, and neither are two other major sites both attributed to her – the so-called Baths of the Queen of Sheba (a large water collection reservoir) and the extensive ruins of her Palace, set beside another field of smaller stele, but they are still a few hundred years short of her time. However, there is one relic that the Ethiopians claim to possess that would date from the Queen’s era. The only problem is that nobody is allowed to see it, apart from a single local guardian who lives in a small compound known as the Treasury of the Church of St Mary of Zion. Myths and legends on the whereabouts of the fabled Ark of the Covenant fill the pages of many sensational books, but the Ethiopians simply accept that it is in Axum, brought here from the Temple in Jerusalem by a group of Jewish tribal sons led by Emperor Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba, and her lover King Solomon.
Even though the Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts all use the Queen’s visit to Solomon to represent an important pagan ruler receiving Solomon’s great wisdom and faith, it could well have been based upon a real historical meeting about trade. What would be more natural than the controller of the southern end of the incense trading route wanting to make representations and offer gifts to the controller of the northern end, which at that time would have been Solomon himself? Even though we know almost nothing about the Queen, we can date Solomon and that meeting, if it ever took place, was probably around 965BC. One of the reasons I think the Queen of Sheba was a real person is because those early religious scribes specified a woman. If they were simply inventing a distant wealthy fictitious ruler to represent the pagan world, then they would surely have chosen a mysterious wealthy king. The Queen of Sheba is the only female character who appears in all three holy books of the Abrahamic faiths – the Torah, the Koran and the Bible (Kings 1:10 and Chronicles 2:9).
Axum’s architectural legacy keeps reappearing throughout Ethiopia’s history, not least at the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, a 400 km flight south from Axum. The best way to understand this remarkable place is to accept that Lalibela is an attempt to recreate Jerusalem and the Holy Land on a mountainside in Ethiopia, almost a thousand years ago under the rule of King Lalibela. A small natural stream was deepened and widened by hand to represent the River Jordan, and very special churches were constructed for the chosen ones to worship. And all because the Crusaders were ejected from the real Jerusalem by the Muslims under Saladin and thus became out of bounds for Ethiopian Christian pilgrims.
After removing the covering of soil, each of the 11 churches is incredibly cut into the bare ground by chipping away at all the rock that you don’t need. Slowly dig down and then all the way around to release the church, but of course it is still connected to the rock at its base. When you want a window you chip in here, then a door there and chip away at the insides to create rooms. The most famous is the cruciform rock church of Beit Georgis, St George – Ethiopia’s patron saint. Apparently this was the last of the churches to be created after St George complained that of the ten original churches, not one was for him. So King Lalibela promised to create the best church for him. According to legend, it is said to have taken only 30 years to dig out, because the faithful locals worked on it through the day, and the angels worked on it through the night. All the churches are linked by a maze of subterranean paths and trenches connected by rickety bridges, all released from the rock in which they stand. The idea of the giant rolling ball chasing Harrison Ford in the film ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is said to have been inspired from this amazing scenery.
The largest of the churches is called Beit Medhane Alem meaning ‘Saviour of the World’ taking the form of a large Greek Temple and said to be a replica of the original 4th century St Mary of Zion church built in Axum. Abba Libanos church is unique in that it is a cave church, where the four walls have been released from the rock, but the roof and floor are still attached. The rock out of which they are dug is a red volcanic tuff.
In the dark recesses of the churches, elderly priests show some of the different types of crosses. The earliest dating from the 4th century were based on Egyptian Coptic designs, from where their first Abuna, or Bishop originated. The cross represents the crucified figure of Christ and as such, has to be adorned or ‘dressed’ before being paraded in public, so they all have loops underneath from which hang rich colourful fabrics. The thing I love about Lalibela is that it is not a sterile museum piece but still very much at the centre of everyday pilgrimage and worship for local people. You’re likely to turn a corner and meet a group of musicians, swaying and shuffling to the constant hypnotic music that drifts lazily across the clear mountain air.
By the time we get to the next great capital at Gondar in the 17th century, the influences have changed forever – away from nearby Arabia and the Holy Land as Ethiopia looked towards India, South-East Asia and the increasing power of Portuguese navigators. The existence of a ‘lost’ tribe of Jews known as the Falasha in the Gondar region is another conundrum that could stretch back to the Queen of Sheba’s time. Mentioned by James Bruce in the accounts of his adventures in the 1770s, this group practiced an ancient form of Judaism, unaware of any Hebrew scriptures or language. So they must have departed the region of Israel at least 2,500 years ago, if not earlier. It is entirely possible that they are the direct descendants of Solomon and Sheba’s son Menelik and were the sons of Israel bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, who were detached from mainstream Jewish society unaware that any other Jews existed until about 150 years ago.
No Falasha remain in Ethiopia today, but atop the great ‘watershed of Africa’ their abandoned settlements lie around the headwaters of the two great water sources that provide over two-thirds of the water for the River Nile – the Tekaze River and the vast Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Even before the time of the Queen of Sheba, these were the trade routes that connected Ethiopia with Egypt and the Holy Land.
One thing is for certain – Ethiopia and its famous Queen are fascinating and mysterious subjects.
Chris Bradley is the author of ten guidebooks for Berlitz, Discovery and Insight Guides. Has an honours degree from Liverpool University and specialises in the history and art of North Africa and Arabia.