In its account of the heyday of King Solomon’s reign, purportedly in the 10th century BCE, the first book of Kings relates a visit from the queen of a distant and prosperous land called Sheba. While the popular European and Ethiopian imagination alike locate Sheba in Ethiopia, archaeologists and historians are less certain. No corroborating evidence about the queen exists, but recent excavations of the ruins of a palace in the ancient Ethiopian city of Aksum may change that, writes Stanley Stewart.
Ethiopians . . . consider [the queen] the mother of their nation, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty that would last three millennia until its last ruling descendant, Haile Selassie, died in 1975. It was from this palace, they believe (and archaeologists dispute), that their queen of Sheba set out for Jerusalem around 1000 BCE, [where] Solomon seduced her and fathered the son she named Menelik, who became the first king of the Solomonic dynasty. Years later, Menelik himself would travel to Jerusalem to see his father—and would return to Ethiopia with a rather special souvenir: the Ark of the Covenant, [which], locals assert, still resides in Aksum, . . . in a simple chapel guarded by a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox monks. . . .
Archaeologists date the palace tentatively to the 6th century BCE, when the queen of Sheba would have been dead for several centuries. They’re not even sure that Sabea—the historical name for the land of Sheba—was in Ethiopia; Yemen seems to have an equally persuasive claim.
The latest archaeological discoveries may be coming to the rescue of the queen’s legend. In 2012, Louise Schofield, a former curator at the British Museum, began excavations at Aksum and found considerable evidence of Sabean culture—including a stone stela inscribed with a sun and a crescent moon, “the calling card of the land of Sheba,” say experts. Sabean inscriptions also were uncovered. Then Schofield struck gold, literally, when she identified a vast, ancient gold mine, quite possibly the source of the queen’s fabulous wealth. Excavations in 2015 revealed two female skeletons buried in regal style and adorned with precious jewelry.