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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021 - Plenary Session II - The Black Queen of Sheba

Sunday, May 9, 2021 - 19:55

Yes, it's that time again! Time to blog the papers presented at the annual International Medieval Congress (at least, the ones in the session I attend). Normally, I'd be in Kalamazoo for this, enjoying the company of my fellow medieval history geeks, pretending the entire thing is intended as my birthday party, and limited to attending one session of papers at a time. This year, of course, I'm attending from my home office, zooming with my fellow medieval history geeks, and not quite as limited because some of the sesions will be recorded for later viewing. The conference proper starts tomorrow morning, but the plenary sessions are pre-recorded, so I got in the mood by watching one of those tonight.

My usual blog heading identify the day and timeslot of the papers, but since I may be watching some out of order, I'll stick to session numbers. As usual, these are quick, stream-of-consciousness notes. I'll indicate if I know I'm missing context or have lost track of the thread, but I may also misunderstand the presentation, not catch names and references correctly, and similar errors. Any anomalies in my summaries should not reflect on the presenters or their work.

Plenary Session II: The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea - Wendy Laura Belcher, Princeton Univ.

(Note: I don’t typically attend the plenary sessions, which are often earlier in the morning than I’m up and moving at the ‘Zoo. But for the virtual conference, they’re pre-recorded. And this one attracted my interest because of having used the motif of the Black Queen of Sheba in the fictitious opera appearing in Mother of Souls.)

Opens with the outline of the legend, in which the Queen of Sheba, the wisest and most beautiful woman in the world, goes to visit King Solomon because she’s heard of his wisdom. They enjoy an intellectual companionship for quite some time, but Solomon decides he wants to have a child with her and tricks her into agreeing to share his bed. She returns home, bears the child, who grows up, returns as an adult to visit Solomon but declines to remain in Israel, preferring his mother’s land. Complex things happen and Solomon sends a group of the sons of noblemen back with him, taking the ark of the convenant with them, and thus God’s blessing is transferred from Israel to Ethiopia.

The talk covers the questions of when story (as represented in the physical text the Kebra Nägäśt 1321, hereafter referred to as "KN") was composed and by whom, and what that means on a symbolic level. Belcher holds the position that it was written by Ethiopians and thus represents the oldest surviving sub-Saharan African text, which has an obvious symbolic importance in the modern world. Arguments against this include the multi-lingual nature of the vocabulary and a somewhat loose understanding of Ethiopian geography displayed in the text. The text reads like an ancient Greek novel in content and style. These together suggest a Greek-Egyptian or Syriac origin for the story. In favor of an Ethiopian origin is the focus on the triumph of an African queen, the literary tradition, and other details I didn’t catch.

We get a brief overview of the social geography of the diversity of Christianity in the 10th century. The “non-Chalcedonian” Christian religions looked to the highlands of Ethiopia as the most important Christian center – a Christianity that has nothing to do with European Christianity but developed independently in the Near East. Ethiopia had a strong literary tradition in the Ge’ez language, with thousands of surviving medieval manuscripts.

When was the text written? No full version has been found anywhere except in Ethiopia, or earlier than 1321. But other texts reference parts of the story. Hypothesis: text was written between 900-1100 CE.

When did the Queen of Sheba become viewed as African? (The Bible only references “Sheba”.) But by 93 AD, Josephus refers to her as Queen of Etypt and Ethiopia, and by 1181 in Germany, she is depicted in art as Black.

When did the motif of her bearing a son to Solomon occur? First mentioned in the 800-900s, so pre-existing motif.

When did the motif appear that she controlled a significant totem? 900s-1000s (Coptic Egyptian) mentions a magical inscribed pillar with all the wisdom of the earth. So the motif of a powerful object pre-exists, but not the specific one in the Ethiopian text.

When did the Queen of Sheba become located specifically in Abyssinia? Mentioned in 920.

But there is no text in the 900s that all these elements come together in the way they do in the KN. That doesn’t happen until the 1200s when all the elements are mentioned as common knowledge by Egyptian author Abu Salih. This suggests that the KN represents a written creation reflecting a set of elements in common circulation in oral form from at least the 900s.

What does the KN say about its origin? The colophon indicates it was translated from Arabic, from a book present in Ethiopia by 1225, into Ge’ez in 1321. It says the Arabic version is itself a translation of the earlier Coptic version. So likely first written around 900-1100.

Where was it written? Most likely earliest in Egypt, given that the earliest relevant texts are in Egyptian Arabic or Coptic. But Ethiopian scholars assert that the colophon may be a fictional invention to give the text greater legitimacy and that it was written originally in Ethiopian in Ge’ez, in support of a new dynasty. However this is contradicted by the basic facts. Further, the text shows clear linguistic evidence of being a translation from Arabic, not a composition in Ge’ez. But does this establish Egyptian authorship?

But might the existing KN have been a translation of an Arabic text that itself was a translation of an Ethiopian composition? Might it have been written by an Ethiopian living in Egypt in Arabic? Might it have been written by an Egyptian living in Ethiopia? Or by an Ethiopian, living in Ethiopia, writing in Arabic? Or do we take the colophon at face value?

Do we have other types of evidence? Might it have been composed in Ethiopia as an oral text, and only the written text passed through Arabic? There was a long tradition in Ethiopia of having conquered a Jewish kingdom in Yemen in 520 that included brining Jewish sacred objects back to Ethiopia. Around this time, the Ethiopian kings began taking Israeli names. So as early as the 500s the Ethiopians were telling stories about having possession of the ark of the convenant and making that part of their religious iconography. These motifs were especially strong in the 1200s, including an Ethiopian king who adopted a throne name of Solomon. Further, other Christian leaders took note of the Israeolophilia of the highland Ethiopian culture and criticized them as “becoming too Jewish.”

Within this context, it seems most likely that an oral version of the Queen of Sheba story was solidly established in Ethiopia somewhere between 500-1000, but the specific manuscript KN was likely written down in Arabic in Egypt or Syria.

What about the geographic anomalies? The geographic description sounds more like Nubia than highland Ethiopia. Might this have been a confusion arising from the Arabic text? Or might the apparent anomalies be illusory? (Arguments are rehearsed for both sides. Belcher leans toward highland Ethiopia but admits there are problems.)

Overall conclusions: Ethiopian oral composition of 500-900 CE, Arabic-langauge text (possibly from a Coptic original) set down around 900-1100, Ge'ez translation of the Arabic in the 1200s, with the earliest surviving version the KN manuscript of 1321.

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