The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) and the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger, a drawing


British Museum

British Museum

When Islam was founded in the seventh century AD, there was considerable Jewish influence in Arabia. Many Old Testament stories and their Jewish elaborations were incorporated into the Qur'an.

Solomon (Sulaiman) is portrayed in the Qur'an as not only a great and wealthy king with power over birds, animals and djinn, but also a prophet of God. Believing that the Queen of Sheba worshipped the sun instead of God, Solomon wrote to her, calling her to come to him 'in humble submission' (Qur'an Sura 27:31). The Queen responded with a letter and gifts and set off to visit Solomon in his crystal palace.

This drawing depicts the moment when the hoopoe bird delivers the letter from Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, or Bilqis as she is known in the Muslim world. Bilqis is shown reclining beside a stream, gazing at the hoopoe perched on the tree stump at the right, with the rolled letter in its beak. Clothed in a remarkable robe, covered in an inhabited arabesque or 'waq-waq' design, Bilqis' sinuous form echoes the meander of the stream next to her.

According to the Qur'an, once the Queen reached Jerusalem, Solomon welcomed her in a courtyard with a glass floor. This was an elaborate plan to trick her into showing her legs, for according to interpreters of the Qur'an, Solomon feared that the Queen was a female devil, having been convinced by his djinns that under her clothes she was concealing the hooves of a donkey. The glass was so smooth it looked like water and the Queen lifted her skirts to avoid getting her hem wet, revealing a pair of beautiful legs. Astounded by the illusion, the Qur'an reports that the Queen exclaimed 'My Lord! surely I have been unjust to myself, and I submit with Sulaiman to Allah, the Lord of the worlds' (Sura 27:44).

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  • Title: The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) and the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger, a drawing
  • Date Created: 1590/1600
  • Physical Dimensions: Width: 22.60cm (sheet); Height: 16.10cm (sheet); Width: 19.50cm (image); Height: 10.00cm (image)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Subject: bird; love (allegorical); king/queen
  • Registration number: 1948,1211,0.8
  • Production place: Made in Iran
  • Period/culture: Safavid dynasty
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Bequeathed by Eckstein, Bernard


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