Origins and Significance
The Kebra Nagast is a literary work from the 14th century that tells the story of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, Bayna Lihkim, and how the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Israel to Ethiopia. One part of its significance lies in the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites to the Ethiopians, as this is believed to have been a shift in God’s favor and blessings. Through this, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe it to be accurate and highly important.
The Kebra Nagast was originally written in Ge’ez, an ancient language once spoken widely in Ethiopia. Ge’ez is used in Ethiopian churches to this day. The Ethiopian church still claims to house the original Ark of the Covenant in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, pictured above.
Characters and Story
As mentioned, in the Kebra Nagast we follow the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and their son Lihkim. The Queen of Sheba, who is actually commonly referred to as Makeda in modern Ethiopia but as Sheba in the Kebra Nagast, and King Solomon’s love story is a major component in the work. To the left is a rendition of Sheba.
A merchant named Tamreen serviced Sheba. The text tells us he was incredibly successful with hyper-specific measurements, such as him being able to house 520 camels, and owning precisely seventy-three ships. Tamreen went to King Solomon, given the task of acquiring materials to build God’s Temple. He was so amazed by King Solomon, Tamreen spoke of him endlessly to Queen Sheba upon his return to her. He told her, mostly, of his incredibly wisdom. He explained how Solomon treated all of the people in his employment, how wealthy he was, and of how notably gracious and kind he was. She listened to him but was hesitant to make the journey to Solomon, pictured to the right, as it was long and treacherous. Sheba eventually concedes, getting her house in order before making the difficult journey to Solomon. She presents him with many gifts, and he returns the favor. We see the return of specific measurements and exorbitant wealth, as he gifts her almost incomprehensible amounts of food.
The Queen of Sheba is convinced by Solomon’s wisdom and devotion to God, promptly declaring to only worship the God of Israel. She also swears that all of her descendants and people under her rule will worship this god. Notably, later on, Sheba makes Solomon swear an oath not to take her by force in a sexual manor. He uses his… “wisdom,” to trick her into breaking this oath, and then proceeds to sleep with her presumably against her will. She has his child, Lihkim as she is traveling back to Ethiopia. Lihkim is the spitting image of Solomon and pesters his mother when he grows up to meet his father. While the identity of his father is no secret, Sheba is hesitant to send him to Israel because the journey is quite difficult.
While he is visiting his father, Lihkim is impressed just as Sheba and Tamreen were. When Solomon is to return to Ethiopia, Solomon sends with him the eldest sons of the lords of Israel, in hopes to mirror his own court. These sons set out to take the Ark of the Covenant, as they were denied a piece of the cloth. Azariah is the leader in this plot, and is reassured by an angel of God that what they are plotting is right. The Ark of the Covenant must be moved because the Israelites have fallen out of favor with God, and therefore cannot be trusted with something so precious. Chapter 48 of the Kebra Nagast ends with an explanation of how the ark was stolen, hidden, and how they would be safe during the travel back due to an angel protecting them.
A Closer Look
One aspect of the text I found extremely interesting was the portrayal of King Solomon and Queen Sheba’s relationship. The overall treatment of Queen Sheba is quite curious as well. Of course, given historical context, it makes more sense that Queen Sheba’s unwillingness in having sex with King Solomon is shown as an obstacle to overcome. Solomon’s wisdom is what helps him in tricking Sheba, though it seems as though she is happy with the gifts bestowed upon her afterwards. Still, she had clearly said earlier in the chapter that her being visibly pregnant would cause her great hardships. It is odd to me how we are supposed to just brush over her protests, as he ‘outwitted’ her by making her thirsty with the food he chose to serve, and then depriving her water. The fact that he had planned those dehydrating dishes for the queen ahead of time also implies that Solomon knew the queen would deny him and was prepared to deceive her to get his way.
The general treatment of Queen Sheba is noticeably different than that of Solomon. She is said to be just as successful, giving many gifts to Solomon and others throughout the story. However, she is seen as a lesser queen and even revokes her own queenship later on in the tale. The Kebra Nagast has a noticeably negative view towards women, noting their supposed weak composition.
On a separate note, I find the specificity of a lot of the measurements of success quite interesting. We are given exact numbers and amounts, though there is no real need. This could perhaps be an attempt to make the story seem more historically accurate and truthful so as to cement it as the real events. These details are shown with the description of Tamreen the merchant, of Solomon’s gifts to Sheba, and of the specificities of the Ark.
Overall, the Kebra Nagast is both intriguing as a story on its own, and fascinating as a piece of religious history. It gives us insight into how women were viewed in that culture, and what was seen as successful. I think it speaks to how the tale was constructed that I was invested despite having no interest in religion! Through reading the Kebra Nagast gave me a better understanding of both western Christianity and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and the text itself was quite an interesting story.
References In Order Shown
The Norton Anthology of World Literature, by Martin Puchner et al., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 578–597.