Archaeology, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Research corroborates many of the details found in the First Book of Kings.

Robert Leinweber (1845-1921), “Solomon and the Queen of Sheba”
Robert Leinweber (1845-1921), “Solomon and the Queen of Sheba” (photo: Public Domain)

We read in 1 Kings (10:1-2, 10-11):

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 bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones. ... Then she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again came such an abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. Moreover the fleet of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought from Ophir a very great amount of almug wood and precious stones.

We see above that Hiram brought gold to Solomon and Judah from Ophir, and the queen of Sheba brought “very much gold.” Perhaps this gold came from the same place. Where is Ophir? A solid historical and archaeological case can be made that it was Mahd Adh Dhahab (“Cradle of Gold”), a small gold area and mine in the northwest Arabian Peninsula. Geologists believe it produced more than 30 metric tons of gold in antiquity, and it was directly in the line of the ancient incense trade route. 

The Hebrew Sheba is understood by all to be the equivalent of Saba — a kingdom (the Sabaeans or Sabeans) in the southwest of the Arabian peninsula (current-day Yemen). Joel 3:8 refers to “the Sabeans ... a nation far off.” Isaiah 45:14 also makes mention of “the Sabeans,” as does Job 1:15, while Job 6:19 has “the travelers of Sheba” and Psalm 72:10, “the kings of Sheba” (cf. Ezekiel 38:13). They were exporters of gold (Psalm 72:15: “gold of Sheba”; Isaiah 60:6: “those from Sheba ... shall bring gold and frankincense”), as well as of precious stones and spices (Ezekiel 37:22: “The traders of Sheba ... traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones, and gold”), and incenses and perfumes (Jeremiah 6:20: “frankincense ... from Sheba”). Jesus (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31) assumes her historicity as well as Solomon’s.

Archaeology strongly corroborates these biblical descriptions. Gunnar Sperveslage summarizes an abundance of research findings that establish a date of trade between ancient Yemen and Egypt to some dozen centuries before Solomon and Sheba:

At the end of the 2nd millennium BCE [1000 B.C.] the camel was domesticated on the Arabian Peninsula ... The ability of the camel to get along without water for days increased the efficiency of trade in desert regions. Although watering holes and wells occur frequently, only the large oases, which are not less than a few days’ ride apart, were capable of supplying large caravans with enough water. The overland trade of aromatics, and especially of frankincense, was the most important source of revenue for South Arabia, resulting in prosperity and wealth. ... not long after the domestication of the camel, the ancient South Arabian Kingdom of Saba arose as an ancient civilisation of high culture. (“Intercultural contacts between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the 2nd to the 1st millennium BCE,” chapter 14 [pp. 303-330], in J. C. Moreno García, editor: Dynamics of Production in the Ancient Near East 1300-500 BC [Oxford: 2016], p. 305)

Another interesting consideration is the history of queens in Arabia in ancient times. In north Arabia queens reigned in the 9th and early 7th centuries B.C., as proven by Assyrian texts. But after 690 B.C., we never find Arabian queens again.

Lastly, a very recent discovery, announced by archaeologist Daniel Vainstub of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in January 2023, is even more directly relevant to the question of Solomon and Sheba. Between the Temple Mount and the Old City of David in Jerusalem is the section known as the Ophel. It was there that archaeologist Eilat Mazar found an inscription dated to the 10th century B.C. (Solomon’s reign was from c. 970 to c. 931 B.C.). It has now been determined that the language was an ancient South Arabian script (Sabaean). Vainstub describes the significance of this turn of events:

Our knowledge of the ASA [“ancient south Arabian”] script and the languages spoken and written by the civilizations that developed in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula as of the end of the second millennium BCE has expanded enormously in recent decades. ... Before … most ASA inscriptions were dated to the 8th century BCE; now, it has become clear that the two branches of ASA script ... were in use in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula as early as the 11th century BCE ... the letters [of the inscription in question] were most probably written before the end of the second millennium BCE ... 
This [is] the first time an ASA inscription dated to the 10th century BCE has been found in such a northern location. ... As the 10th-century BCE South Arabian political scene is well known, there seems to be little doubt that the writer of this inscription was a Sabaean. At this time, the Kingdom of Sheba was the dominant power in South Arabia, with a flourishing economy based on the irrigated cultivation of incense and perfume plants and their marketing over long distances by means of camel caravans. ... The Ophel inscription is the most ancient ASA inscription found so far in the Land of Israel.
The Ophel inscription makes an important contribution to the age-old question of the likelihood of a visit by a delegation from the South Arabian Peninsula to King Solomon in the 10th century BCE as related in 1 Kgs 10 and 2 Chr 9; ... ( “Incense from Sheba for the Jerusalem Temple,” Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology [Jan. 2023] 4: 42–68; citations from 45-46, 59, 61)
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