The following is a guest article on the legendary African Queen of Sheba, by About.com's Asian History Guide, Kallie Szczepanski.
Legend says that just after 1000 BCE, the northern Ethiopian city of Axum (Aksum) was troubled by Awre, a monstrous serpent king. He devoured thousands of animals every day – cows, goats, sheep and birds – and once a year, he demanded that the people of Axum offer up a maiden for him to eat. One day, it was the turn of a brave and lovely young girl named Makeda to be sacrificed. Some versions of the legend state that it was Makeda’s father, Agabos, who caught the serpent by its horn and killed it. In other versions, Makeda herself slew the serpent and was proclaimed Queen of Axum.
The people of Ethiopia believe that Makeda ruled over a kingdom called Saba, and that she was the Biblical Queen of Sheba. They credit her with beginning Ethiopia’s conversion from animism to monotheism; in fact, makeda means “not thus,” supposedly because the queen instructed her people that “not thus is it good to worship the sun, but it is right to worship God.”
According to Ethiopia’s 14th century royal epic, the Kebra Nagast or “Glory of Kings,” the young queen Makeda learned about worship of a single god in the heart of the monotheist world at that time - Jerusalem, capital of the Jewish kingdom under Solomon the Wise. When Makeda had ruled Saba for five years, she heard about Israel and its wise king. Determined to meet the man and learn about governance from him, she led a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Makeda spent six months learning how to rule justly and wisely from Solomon. As she prepared to return to Axum, Solomon decided that he would like to have a child with the beautiful Ethiopian queen. He ordered a very spicy meal prepared for her farewell dinner, and invited her to sleep that night in his palace near his own chambers. Makeda agreed, on the condition that he not try to force himself on her. Solomon promised that as long as she did not take anything of his, he would not sleep with her.
The Queen of Sheba ate the spicy food and went to bed. Solomon had a goblet of water set out on at her bedside. When Makeda awoke, thirsty, and drank from the goblet, Solomon stepped forward and announced that she had taken water from him. The penalty was that she had to sleep with him.
Nine months later, as she was traveling home, Makeda gave birth to a son. She named him Bayna Lehkem, meaning “son of a wise man.” When the boy grew into young adulthood, he longed to meet his famous father, so at the age of 22, he went to Jerusalem. Although Solomon wanted Bayna Lehkem to stay with him, the young man returned to Ethiopia a short time later, after stealing the Ark of the Covenant from his father’s temple.
Solomon and Sheba’s son would go on to found the great Kingdom of Axum under the throne name of Menelik I. He is also considered the progenitor of the Solomonic line of kings in Ethiopia, which ended only with the death of Haile Selassie in 1975.
Although the story of Makeda, Queen of Sheba, and her encounter with King Solomon is likely apocryphal, it continues to profoundly influence Ethiopia’s culture and history even in the post-imperial era. Certainly, ancient Ethiopia had strong ties across the Red Sea to Arabia. The Kingdom of Axum even included Yemen and parts of what is now southern Saudi Arabia at its height. Ethiopia also has a long tradition of Judaism, and converted to Christianity around 350 CE, during the reign of the Axumite King Ezana, supposedly a direct descendant of Makeda and Solomon. To this day, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity retains a strong emphasis on the Old Testament. Every Orthodox Church also maintains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of the connection between Makeda, Queen of Sheba, and Solomon the Wise.