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The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) and the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger, a drawing


'Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels that bore spices, very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart.' (1 Kings 10:1-2)

This is the first reference to the legendary Queen of Sheba. She is thought to have come from the kingdom of Saba (popularly known in English as 'Sheba'), a powerful incense trading kingdom, in the heart of present-day Yemen.

This tour originally accompanied the exhibition Queen of Sheba: Treasures of Ancient Yemen (9 June - 13 October 2002) which examined the Queen of Sheba in art and legend and explored the magnificent civilization that lay behind the myth through archaeological treasures from the ancient kingdoms of South Arabia. The artefacts in the exhibition came from the collections of the British Museum, the American Foundation for the Study of Man (Falls Church, Virginia, USA) and museums across Yemen.

This tour provides an introduction to the different myths of the Queen and to how she is portrayed in works of art from the Renaissance onwards.

Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen was sponsored by Barclays PLC.

The Queen of Sheba in art and legend

The Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon heralded a long fascination which has continued until modern times. This short account, devoid of any physical description, direct reference to romantic encounter or a religious conversion, has undergone extensive Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Ethiopian elaborations in which the Queen is described as beautiful but hairy-legged (the Jewish tradition, Targum Sheni of Esther), a convert to Islam (the Qur'an), a clairvoyant who identifies the Cross of Christ (Jacopo de Voragine's Golden Legend) and Makeda, the Queen of Ethiopia, who gives birth to Solomon's son (Kebra Nagast).

The works of art in this section provide an introduction to the great range of her depictions and traditions: a drawing from Safavid Iran, an eighteenth-century drawing after a Renaissance master, a nineteenth-century watercolour influenced by contemporary archaeological finds in Iraq, a Scottish Symbolist work of the 1920s and a painted narrative that illustrates the importance of the Queen of Sheba to the national and religious identity of Ethiopia.

The Queen of ShebaThe Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) and the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger, a drawing

When Islam was founded in the seventh century AD, there was considerable Jewish influence in Arabia. Many Old Testament stories and their Jewish elaborations were incorporated into the Qur'an.

Solomon (Sulaiman) is portrayed in the Qur'an as not only a great and wealthy king with power over birds, animals and djinn, but also a prophet of God. Believing that the Queen of Sheba worshipped the sun instead of God, Solomon wrote to her, calling her to come to him 'in humble submission' (Qur'an Sura 27:31). The Queen responded with a letter and gifts and set off to visit Solomon in his crystal palace.

This drawing depicts the moment when the hoopoe bird delivers the letter from Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, or Bilqis as she is known in the Muslim world. Bilqis is shown reclining beside a stream, gazing at the hoopoe perched on the tree stump at the right, with the rolled letter in its beak. Clothed in a remarkable robe, covered in an inhabited arabesque or 'waq-waq' design, Bilqis' sinuous form echoes the meander of the stream next to her.

According to the Qur'an, once the Queen reached Jerusalem, Solomon welcomed her in a courtyard with a glass floor. This was an elaborate plan to trick her into showing her legs, for according to interpreters of the Qur'an, Solomon feared that the Queen was a female devil, having been convinced by his djinns that under her clothes she was concealing the hooves of a donkey. The glass was so smooth it looked like water and the Queen lifted her skirts to avoid getting her hem wet, revealing a pair of beautiful legs. Astounded by the illusion, the Qur'an reports that the Queen exclaimed 'My Lord! surely I have been unjust to myself, and I submit with Sulaiman to Allah, the Lord of the worlds' (Sura 27:44).

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