The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea

Written by Wendy Laura Belcher

In progress.

The Queen of Sheba may be the most famous woman in literary history, having been depicted for over 2,500 years in three great world traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. With careful readings of the many colorful tales about the Queen of Sheba, I document, for the first time, the development of the legend of an African Queen of Sheba, which culminated in the fourteenth-century Egyptian and Ethiopian novel the Kəbrä Nägäśt. Its African Christian portrayal of the Queen of Sheba differs radically from other versions in depicting a queen wiser, purer, and more powerful than any man, one so strong she could take the Ark of the Covenant from King Solomon. The first to address this extraordinary medieval text directly, my book argues that the Kəbrä Nägäśt had a profound effect on modern history and the global canon. Indeed, the Kəbrä Nägäśt is quite possibly the most important medieval text ever written. I address its circulation in Europe and the Americas, tracing the global spread of the legend of a black Queen of Sheba, including the twentieth-century religion it made possible, Rastafarianism.

The last academic book about the Queen of Sheba was written twenty years ago: Jacob Lassner’s excellent Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). However, it deals not at all with the African or Christian tradition. There are no other single-authored research books about her. Almost forty years ago, an edited volume partly about the queen had a chapter on the Ethiopian legend about her, but it is brief and quite dated; many new sources have come to light since then: J. B. Pritchard, ed. Solomon and Sheba (London: Phaidon, 1974). Other than that, there have been only two very successful museum exhibits and catalogues about the Queen of Sheba from the Bowers Museum and the British Museum.

No book addresses the Kəbrä Nägäśt at length, probably because most scholars are not familiar with the language in which it was originally written, Gəʿəz. The last work on it specifically was an amazing dissertation published over fifty years ago on the texts’ sources: David Allan Hubbard, “The Literary Sources of the Kebra Nagast” (PhD diss, University of St. Andrews., 1957). Only five articles were written about the Kəbrä Nägäśt between 1940 and 2001. 

Two articles of mine related to this project:

“From Sheba They Come: Medieval Ethiopian Myth, U.S. Newspapers, and Modern American Narrative.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. 33, no. 2 (spring 2010): 239-257.

“African Rewritings of the Jewish and Islamic Solomonic Tradition: The Triumph of the Queen of Sheba in the Ethiopian Fourteenth-Century Text Kəbrä Nägäst.” In Sacred Tropes: Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur’an as Literary Works, ed. Roberta Sabbath. Boston/Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009: 441-459. Reviewed by Theology & Sexuality, Journal of Qur’anic Studies, The Muslim World.