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The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence

posted on: Jan 18, 2022

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence

By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer

There’s a fight in the café where a woman sits hogging an entire table, a man sits near her, and she smacks her lips. The man bewildered, and slightly annoyed, replies sarcastically, “Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?” A popular pop culture reference is when someone oversteps their boundary or acts in an entitled way.

Who is this iconic Queen, popular enough to be used in contemporary speech? What’s the history behind this Queen? Is she truly half Jinn (demon), half-human? Was she really this hairy-legged Queen who worshipped the Sun? And then there’s the long-waited debate of whether she was original of Ethiopian or Yemeni descent. There is much contention surrounding the historical accuracy of the Queen and much of what we know of her is from historical religious narratives.

In the south of Arabia, the eastern part of Yemen lies the city of Old Marib. It is located west of Sana’a and north of Aden. It was the capital city of the Sabaean kingdom. In Marib sits 1,000-year-old relics belonging to Sheba’s Empire. Not much archeological evidence is left, all that remains is the throne of Bilqis (Mahram Bilqis), and the Temple of Awwan (Mahram Bilqis).

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence
Arash Bilqis, is a cluster of six tall pillars made up of stone. 

Its architecture is a reflection of Yemen’s innovative engineering and historical pluralism (Agency). These sights strongly suggest that Sheba is from the Sabaean Empire, her kingdom resided in Yemen, stretching to parts of Africa. The Saba kingdom-controlled commerce around Bab el Mandeb and parts of Abyssinia which is modern-day Ethiopia.

Not much is known of the Queen outside religious historical narratives, only that Saba was amongst the wealthiest kingdoms in Southern Arabia during the time. This kingdom was known for spices, and natural resources, profiting off the trade of frankincense, and myrrh, which at the time was more valuable than gold (Mark). The Sabaean Empire is known for its innovation, and one of its greatest innovations was its Marib Dam.

The Queen of Sheba is history’s IT girl. She is especially famous for her association to King Soloman. The stories of their interaction and relations vary with each religious or traditional narrative. In the Hebrew Bible, the Queen is described as the Queen of the East. According to the Biblical narrative, Sheba introduced Christianity to Ethiopia. Makeda, her Ethiopian name, had traveled to Palestine, in hopes of meeting King Solomon. She had heard rumors that he was a very wise and generous man, and visited his courts bearing gifts (Britannica).

According to some narrations, she has a son with Solomon, then returns to Ethiopia and names him Menelik. For many Ethiopians, there is the belief that Menelik has taken the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon, and it remains in Ethiopia to this day (PBS).

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence
“‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, oil on canvas painting by Edward Poynter, 1890”

In the Islamic narrative, Sheba is known as Balqees or Bilqis, derived from the word balmaqa which means moon worshiper. She is mentioned in the Quran, in the chapter “The Ants.” In this Surah, Prophet and King Suleiman was informed of a wealthy, and powerful Queen who resided in the land of Saba. Suleiman had this unique blessing from God, where he was given the ability to speak to animals and jinns. He is known as the King of jinns, (supernatural spirits made of black smoke), and his closet advisor and missionary was a bird by the name of Hoopoe. Hoopoe had informed Suleiman that Bilqis and her kingdom worshipped the sun, and thus he invited the Queen to his kingdom to covey the true religion.

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful; be ye not arrogant against me, but come in submission (to the true religion)” (Qur’an 27:30–31).”

The Queen was awed at how Solomon had brought her throne to his palace which impacted her decision for conversion. He had used a powerful Jinn to bring her throne from her kingdom in Yemen, to Palestine and all within a blink of an eye (Abdulaali).

In the pre-Islamic Arab narration, the story of Bilqis is rather amusing. Suleiman is informed that Bilqis has hairy legs and the hooves of an ass. He then sets up a trap, where she will confuse the glass floor for water. When Bilqis arrives, she falls for the trick and lifts up her skirt not wanting it to get wet. It also describes Bilqis as having a jinni mother, and a human father. It is also mentioned that Bilqis had used Jinns in helping her build the great Dam, known as Marib Dam.

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence
“Kitab al-Bulhan: Devils Talking”

The pre-Islamic narrative differs much from the Islamic one, Bilqis is seen as equal to Suleiman in wisdom and wealth in the Quranic narrative (Abdulaali). Suleiman treats her with utmost respect despite the Arab sources detailing Suleiman as one who would trick her into showing her hairy legs.

The question of whether the Queen has Jinni qualities is lost in history. She has influenced Arab culture, becoming a source of inspiration in archaic and contemporary Arab literature. She is glorified in a poem by Ibn Arabi, a famous Arab Andalusian Muslim scholar, poet, and philosopher. In his poem Tarjuman el-Ashwāq, he describes her as a historical icon (Abdulaali). In this modern era, Bilqis has proved a source of empowerment and dignity for contemporary Arab women. Bilqis’s magnetism and grandeur is glorified, and she is often seen as a feminist figure. 

The Queen of Sheba in Pop culture: Her Origins & Influence

Houda al-Na’mani, a Lebanese poet, displays Bilqis’s intelligence through words of prose:

If the waters’ path is the birds,
the horse reins follow them.
But the Ma’rib is a mirror,
on which gardens and vines fix their gaze.

Bilqis’s intellect is mirrored in her achievements, and one of her achievements was the city of Ma’rib. It was an impressive feat of architecture and design. The ancient Dam was an innovative irrigation system for its time and was built in 8thcentury BC. She expresses Bilqis’s dossier as a pathway to where water flows, birds fly, horses hooves trample, and gardens and vines grow. She is the lining of the fabric of nature and eternal wisdom.

Bilqis has even inspired Saudi Poet Anūd Arrudhan, and Anud writes in her poem “Bilqīs’s Riches,

Bilqīs was endowed with all riches . . .
and from my papers, a veil of feeling.
In the morning, I saw her . . . on her throne, building cities of doves, grain, and prayers,
offerings to those heading westward,
from the fear of departure
in the windows of her heart!

Here, Anud sees Bilqis as a symbol of freedom, a shining light that shows the way. She is the guiding hand that grants birds their wings. As a Saudi woman, she identifies with Bilqis as a way of defying her rigid and tribalistic culture. Bilqis has even influenced Iraqi poet Bushra Al- Bustani. In her poem, “Bilqīs Sorrows,” she uses the idea of Bilqis, her imminence, her guiding hand as a way of veiling the plight of Iraqi women and washing away their grievances. Bilqis in a way provides hope to those who have lost their country and family, those who live in economic distress, and those who live in fear of constant war (Abdulaali).

References:

Abdulaali, Wafaa. (2012). Echoes of a legendary queen. Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/echoes-of-a-legendary-queen/ 

Agency, Anadolu. (2019, July 12). Ancient Yemeni heritage on verge of being Lost forever. Daily Sabah. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.dailysabah.com/arts-culture/2019/07/13/ancient-yemeni-heritage-on-verge-of-being-lost-forever 

Encyclopedia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Queen of Sheba. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Queen-of-Sheba 

Public Broadcasting Service. (2005, November). In Search of Myths & And Heroes . the Queen of Sheba. PBS. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/mythsandheroes/myths_four_sheba.html 

Mark, Joshua J. (2018, March 26). Queen of Sheba. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.worldhistory.org/Queen_of_Sheba/ 

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