The Second Zion - the Wonder of Ethiopia's Lalibela

By Connery, William S. | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Second Zion - the Wonder of Ethiopia's Lalibela


Connery, William S., The World and I


Egyptian hieroglyphic records indicate that as far back as 2700 b.c., the pharaohs obtained frankincense and myrrh from Ethiopia and the Somali coast. Not long after David reigned in Israel, a kingdom was established that conducted its foreign trade through the Red Sea port of Adulis. Its capital was Axum, described by Nonnosus, ambassador of the Roman Emperor Justinian, as "the greatest city of all Ethiopia."

Today, extensive ruins of temples, fortresses, and palaces as well as a series of vast stelae--carved granite monoliths, some of which exceed sixty-five feet in height and weigh more than five hundred tons--attest to a noble past. Axum's greatest significance, however, is not as an archaeological site. It is the supposed capital of the queen of Sheba, the city from whence she set out on her legendary visit to the court of Solomon in Jerusalem. Upon this story rests the concept of the sacred kingship of the Semitic peoples of Ethiopia. This notion links the recent past to ancient times in a most unambiguous fashion. Emperor Haile Selassie was, after all, the 225th monarch of a dynasty that traced its inception to the union of Solomon and Sheba. His overthrow following the Marxist revolution of 1974 thus marked the end of a remarkable monarchic era.

Sheba's journey

The story of Solomon and Sheba is one of great mythic power and has infiltrated numerous cultures outside Ethiopia. The earliest known version is preserved in two books of the Old Testament. Here we are told that the queen of Sheba, lured by Solomon's fame, journeyed to Jerusalem with a great caravan of costly presents and there "communed with him of all that was in her heart." King Solomon, for his part, "gave to the Queen of Sheba all her desire. So she turned and went to her own land, she and her servants." The Talmud also contains oblique references to the story, as does the New Testament (where Sheba is referred to as "the Queen of the South"). There is, in addition, a fairly detailed account in the Qur'an, echoed in several Arabic and Persian folktales of later date, in which she is known as Bilqis.

Of all the narratives, the Ethiopian variant, where Sheba's name becomes Makeda, is the richest and most convincing. Passed down through the centuries, it first appears in writing in the medieval Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), the Ethiopian national saga.

As a historical figure, Makeda is thought to have lived between 1000 and 950 b.c. Despite a rival claim from southern Arabia, the evidence is strong that her capital was indeed in Abyssinia--although not necessarily in the city of Axum. It is in Axum, however, that the Ethiopians locate her.

From here, according to the Kebra Nagast, Makeda was persuaded to travel to the court of Solomon by the head of her caravans, a man much impressed by the king's wisdom and might. In Jerusalem a banquet of specially seasoned meat was given in her honor, and at the end of the evening Solomon invited her to spend the night in his chambers. Makeda agreed but first extracted a commitment from the king that he would not take her by force. To this he assented, on the single condition that the queen promise not to take anything in his house. Made thirsty by the seasoned food, Makeda soon awoke and drank some water. At this point Solomon seized her hand and accused her of having broken her oath. He then "worked his will with her."

That night the king dreamed that a brilliant light, the divine presence, had left Israel. Shortly afterward the queen returned to her country. There, nine months and five days later, she gave birth to a son, Menelik, the founder of Ethiopia's Solomonic dynasty. In due course, when the boy had grown, he visited his father, who received him with great honor and splendor. After spending a year at court in Jerusalem, the prince determined to return to Ethiopia.

When he was informed of this, Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and commanded them to send their firstborn sons with Menelik. …

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