I can’t remember when I first learned about the Queen of Sheba’s love affair with King Solomon. In fact, I think I tried to correct my Ethiopian friends, “You mean Samson and Delilah, right?” And besides, why do memories of childhood Sunday-school classes keep resurrecting themselves in the context of Ethiopian emperors?
The trouble is that I did not intend for this to be a “religious” blog. But in order to understand Ethiopian culture, one must understand that it cannot be separated from its religious identity. That identity is founded in the belief that its 3000-year-dynasty of Ethiopian kings is a line of the sons of Solomon, as recorded in their sacred text, the The Kebra Nagast.
Ethiopians are proud that they were almost never pagan –they were converted from Judaism to Christianity in much the same fashion as were the Greeks and Romans—that is, by real Apostles, and not by colonial missionaries. Their Jewish heritage stems from their ancient queen who journeyed to Jerusalem bearing gifts for the benefit of the Jerusalem king, the same as described in the first book of Kings. The Kebra Nagast goes on to describe how Solomon let the weary queen crash for the night, so long as she promised not to take anything. When she woke in the middle of the night and attempted to “steal” a sip of water, the king “stole” something from her in return. A generation later, their son Menelik would steal something a little more significant: the Ark of the Covenant.
If you recall from the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1930s good guys send their best archeology professor on a quest for the original vessel carrying the Ten Commandments, a mission critical to the preservation of Judeo-Christian heritage and protection from bad-guy world domination. The professor, Indiana Jones, uses a gold medallion to deflect a ray of sun that pinpoints the precise location of the treasure … in Egypt.
According to Ethiopian legend, however, the Ark had been protected from the bad guys long before Indiana Jones arrived. That’s because a friend of Menelik had stolen it, placed a fake in its place, and carried it to Ethiopia. All of this happened before the destruction of Jerusalem, before the Crusades, and before Dan Brown.
Today the Ark rests in a temple in Axum, Ethiopia, and priests take life-long oaths to guard it. Believers must rely upon faith though, because no one else is allowed to enter the temple to look at it, lest it risk being stolen again.