I came in the slipstream of the hoopoe. I came looking for the palace of the Queen of Sheba, where a thousand years later the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed would seek refuge. I came armed with a pair of stout histories and a promisingly thick archaelogical field-guide. I needn’t have burdened myself. I know nowhere on earth to match Ethiopia. Amongst the scent of green coffee beans roasted on iron griddles, amongst the circles made in the sky by its vultures and eagles, the very air carries thousands of years of history and myth as if it were yesterday.
Sheba was everywhere but nowhere. You pick up elements of her story where-ever you travel in Ethiopia. At a rock basin, from a deacon in a carved rock church, whilst admiring a medieval church mural or amongst the palace ruins and ancient tombs associated with her. None of them could made to dovetail with a precise archealogical time-line that matches up with that of her royal lover, Solomon, King of Israel and Judah from 966 to 926 BC. This lack of an exact archaeological record in no way interferes with the passionate relationship of the Queen Sheba to the mountains, river gorges and high platueax of Ethiopia. In fact it rather frees her up, spiritualising and making sacred the landscape in a hundred different sites.
Sheba was the 52nd sovereign of Abyssinia as well as the queen of southern Arabia and ruler of the Red Sea coast. Her court stabled 520 camels whilst 73 ships awaited her bidding at the royal harbour of Adulis. Her testimonials are beyond question amongst the People of the Books; known as Queen Makeda in the Ethiopian Book of Kings, the Kibre Negest, as Queen Bilqis in the Arab accounts of the pre-Islamic Prophets and as the Queen of Sheba in the books of the Old Testament. When she heard from her merchants that a great temple to God was being constructed at Jerusalem, adorned with precious items gathered from around the world she despatched one of her ministers with enough incence to fuel the temple censors for a generation and 120 talents of red gold.
Soon after he had received these gifts Solomon began to inquire about this distant land The answer came one afternoon whilst he was reviewing his subjects from a hill top throne. He watched his army battalions march by as well as the specialist bands on loan from his father-in-law, Pharoah of Egypt and his chief commercial ally, Hiram of Tyre. He also had command of the spirit world and had summoned the numberless Jinn to parade that day, whilst his sovereignity also stretched over the winds, which were also trooping past in orderly rows. His wisdom allowed him even to understand the language of animals which made him chuckle as he overheard the ant-heralds rushing out to warn their brethren to go underground lest they be crushed by the armies of King Solomon. He glanced up to the skies to check that the birds were also all assembled by their different order and degrees. It was then that he noticed that someone was missing. “How is it that I see not the hoopoe” , he demanded. “I will give him hard punishment or I will slay him unless he bring me a plain excuse.” But the hoopoe had good reason for its delay. It returned from its mission having at last found out the land of Queen Sheba, who “has been given an abundance of all things and hers is a mighty throne.” Solomon sent the hoopoe back with an invitation for the queen. The visit was a success and the queen even got used to Solomon’s bizarre ways; one moment conjuring up her throne from her homeland the next fooling with her a solid crystal swimming pool. He had become obsessed by her. On the eve of her departure he arranged such a magnificent banquet that by the time all the courses had been served it was dark. He begged her to stay the night and she agreed on the condition that he would make no advances. The King laughingly agreed provided that she “not take anything from his palace without his leave”. The Queen who had never lacked for anything in her life was amused by such a ridiculous request and gladly gave her agreement. However Solomon had cunningly served such well spiced food that made the queen crave for water. She suppressed this thirst until she could bare it no more and then creeped noiselessly to the kings bed where Solomon had arranged a tempting jug of cool spring water. As she quenched her thirst the king reached out, grabbed her wrist and drew her towards him. All in a fluster the queen claimed that she hadn’t thought that anything so insubstantial as water was covered by their agreement. As Solomon drew her closer he declared that there was “nothing on earth more precious than water.” That night they knew each other as Adam and Eve did. The king awoke beside the sleeping queen suddenly just before dawn, wakened by a dream that saw the sun leave Israel to shine brightly over Ethiopia. He knew instinctively that a son had been conceived that night and took of his signet ring and gave it to the queen, “for your first-born”.
When Sheba returned to her homeland she paused to give birth at the village of Maibella in Tigre province before proceeding with her newborn boy to a tumultous welcome in her capital of Axsum. The boy was called Menelik or in Arabic Ibn al-Malik (son of the king) and later as he grew into manhood, he was also became known as Ibn al-Hakim (son of the wise). When he reached the age of 22 he was told the secret of his birth and then sailed north to meet his father. Landing at the city of Gaza his resemblance to royal Solomon was so absolute that he was mistaken for the King. In Jerusalem Solomon embraced his son, brushing aside the returned signet ring as unnecessary proof. Under his father’s hospitable roof Menelik learned the law of Moses at the feet of Zadok, the High Priest. After three years he knew it was time to go home. All Solomon’s entreaties could not detain him so his father resolved that Menelik would not leave unattended. Some of the glory of Israel would go with. 1,000 men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel were summoned to be his escort led by the son of the High Priest. An exact copy of the Ark of the Covenant was prepared and laid beside the original in the Holy of Holies to be blessed. Although when it finally became time to set off, the real Ark not the copy was taken by Menelik. A few days later Solomon felt a deep malaise and so wretchedly uneasy that he knew with a nagging certainty that the real Ark had left Jerusalem. Anger and betrayl at first clouded his mind and he made preperations for a military pursuit until the Holy Spirit breathed calm back into him, the spreading of the Word was cause for jubiliation not resentment. feared tha
The delegation of the Quraysh petitioned for an audience with the Emperor. Axum was vast but it had little in common with our assumptions of a city of the classical period. It was a stone encampment of a city, a vast but disparate capital, composed of dozens of magnificent walled palaces each associated with an even more magnificent tomb complex. These vast royal and noble tombs, composed of massive monolithic blocks of granite would each eclipse stone henge though the equisite un-mortared masonry can only be compared to the achievements of the Inca’s. In between these great complexes, fixed like so many stars in the sky, there were bare meadows which in season filled up with the emphemeral tents and hut cities of the tribes drawn to the city by the great markets and festivals. The hundred great stellae of Axum - though much depleted by age ( and the theft of Mussolini) – still dominate the modern town. How much more must these stone columns, which include the worlds largest single quarried stone, have dominated the past. On the edge of Aksum you can visit the so-called ‘palace of Sheba’. This seventh century complex is a warren of courts, chambers, offices and halls though all this gives way to the raised central building where three flights of stairs command the approaches from three different courtyards. Before just such a building must the delegation of the Quraysh have brought forth their tribute of presents to the Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia, and have been given permission to speak. Such occassions were dominated by the overpowering splendour of the Axumite rulers. Through the eyewitness account of a Byzantine ambassador from this period we see the Negus approaching the foreign delegation on a wheeled platform, bound round with golden leaves, and drawn by four elephants. “He wore a gold and linen head-dress, with a fluttering golden streamers. His collar, armlets, and many bracelets and rings were of gold. The kimg’s kilt was of gold on linen; his chest was covered with straps embroidered with pearls. He held a gilded shield and lances, while around him musicians played flutes and his nobles formed an armed guard.”
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by Barnaby Rogerson