We’re going way back in time today. Marc Graham, author of Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, used the latest archaeological findings and linguistic research to construct an accurate depiction of the Old Testament Middle East and to revive the untold story of Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and Bathsheba, wife and mother of Israel’s first kings. Over to you, Marc.
Legends of Sheba – Tracing the Elusive Queen by Marc Graham
Did she or didn’t she…?
This may be the foremost question relating to the Queen of Sheba. Did she or didn’t she have an affair with Israel’s King Solomon, as suggested in the Song of Solomon. Did she or didn’t she bear his son, as related in Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast? More fundamentally, did she or didn’t she actually exist?
In researching my latest book, Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, I faced the thrilling, yet daunting, task of chasing down the elusive queen. At first glance, the problem seemed simple: Use the most common tale (as told in the Hebrew Bible), and weave a more elaborate story around it. But no.
For starters, the Bible give us only thirteen verses to work with. Thirteen! It gives four times as much print to Jephthah and his daughter. Who? you ask. My point exactly.
Second, the queen’s name is never mentioned. Not terribly surprising for a book that lists twenty times as many men as women, and which names fewer than ten percent of those women. Add to this the fact that we don’t actually know where ancient Sheba was located. While the most generally accepted theory equates the legendary kingdom with Saba in ancient Yemen, the queen is claimed by various peoples ranging from Nigeria to Java, spanning nearly a quarter of the globe.
So where does the intrepid writer/researcher begin?
Fortunately, there exists a fairly rich body of legend in ancient Arabic and Ethiopian sources. These lands, as it turns out, are precisely in the area to be expected from the Saba-equals-Yemen school of thought. While the tales range from fantastical (Arabian djinns and flying carpets) to the anachronistic (adherence to one god long before the advent of monotheism), they do provide a rich source of story material. There was still, however, the matter of a name.
The Quran and associated Arabic tales give us the queen as Bilkis or Balqis, while in the Ethiopian legends she is Makeda. Choices, choices.
And, frankly, that’s what it comes down to. The author simply has to make a choice, to decide what shape the story wants to take, and then leaven it with elements from the legends. Which is where the fun begins.
I can hear the wails of protests from the historical purists. You must stay true to the source material! You can’t simply innovate. To which I calmly reply, That didn’t stop those initial writers.
The Biblical stories of David and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were not written and canonized until some five hundred years after the events they purport to record. The Arabic and Ethiopian legends are removed by another millennium or two. Archaeology reveals that the Levant around the turn of the first millennium BCE was universally polytheistic, yet the sanctioned version of the story has the fabled kings calling upon the One True God. What goes on here?
As with most history (the purview of the victors), the Queen of Sheba legend serves a definite political agenda. The actual writing of the Bible came about in the years surrounding the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish aristocracy. Convinced by the priests of Yahweh that the disastrous turn of events was due to the people’s infidelity to their god, most of the Hebrew/Canaanite pantheon was destroyed and their history cleansed with the bloody hyssop.
So do we have any reliable means of recreating these tales? I believe so.
Archaeologists are making some extraordinary finds around Jerusalem and throughout the Levant. These give us a keen insight to ordinary life in the time around 1000 BCE. Between these finds and the official version of things, we can understand the distortion wrought by the lens of the patriarchal, monotheist agenda and reverse-engineer a likely (if not entirely accurate) version of how things might actually have been.
As with our ancient myths and legends, today’s stories give us an opportunity to explore what it means to be human, to look deep into our collective unconscious and find what lurks in the darkness. While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.
Does the Queen of Sheba legend hold any meaning for us today? Of course. As with all great legends that stand the test of time, she has many stories to share, and the value of her lessons hold true even three thousand years later.
Marc Graham is pledging half of the proceeds from his latest book Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba to Yemen humanitarian relief in partnership with the Zakat Foundation of America , who will match his donation.
Many thanks for being here today, Marc. The furthest back I’ve gone is 1870 Paris. I can’t even imagine how challenging your research process has been.
When Makeda, the slave-born daughter of the chieftain of Saba, comes of age, she wins her freedom and inherits her father’s titles along with a crumbling earthwork dam that threatens her people’s survival. When she learns of a great stone temple being built in a land far to the north, Makeda leads a caravan to the capital of Yisrael to learn how to build a permanent dam and secure her people’s prosperity.
On her arrival, Makeda discovers that her half-sister Bilkis (also known as Bathsheba) who was thought to have died in a long-ago flash flood, not only survived, but has become Queen of Yisrael. Not content with her own wealth, Bilkis intends to claim the riches of Saba for herself by forcing Makeda to marry her son. But Bilkis’s designs are threatened by the growing attraction between Makeda and Yetzer abi-Huram, master builder of Urusalim’s famed temple. Will Bilkis’s plan succeed or will Makeda and Yetzer outsmart her and find happiness far from her plots and intrigue?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.