Jerusalem Comes to Jamaica

06/16/2015 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

It was a long trip, but at last you're down in the Caribbean, dancing the night away to peppy reggae tunes. Chances are you don't know it, but behind that catchy music is a story linking some royal hanky-panky in ancient Jerusalem to a 20th century Ethiopian emperor today worshiped by as many as a million people around the world. Here's how all this came about.

Legends say Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, heard about the great wisdom of King Solomon from a talking hoopoe bird (possibly sent her way by the king's public relations man). The queen decides to get a first-hand look at the wise king, so she puts together a caravan loaded with precious gifts, makes the 1,400-mile trip from Sheba (now Ethiopia or Yemen) to Jerusalem, swaps riddles, and more, with King Solomon for six months, and comes back pregnant. Their child is named Menelik, "the chosen one."


King Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba in this painting in Jerusalem's Old City.

Accounts of the royal hook-up are given in the Bible, the Muslim Quran and the Ethiopian holy book, the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings).

Fast-forward 3,000 years, and all of this comes together again in a spot half-way around the world from Sheba. The legacy of Solomon and the stunningly beautiful queen is seen today in the sun-drenched islands of the Caribbean - and particularly in Jamaica - in the Rastafarian religion's adoration of a 20th century Ethiopian emperor.

You see his portraits all over the islands, from ghetto walls to the jewel boxes of reggae CDs.


Reggae CD shows images of an Ethiopian emperor.

The emperor was known as Haile Selassie. Actually, that was his title, meaning Lord of Lords, King of Kings and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. His followers believe he was the 225th descendant of Solomon and Makeda in the Menelik bloodline.

His name was Ras Tafari (hence the Rastafarians, or Rastas for short) Makonnen.

The faith was thrust into the global spotlight in the 1960s when Jamaican reggae tunes by island superstars of the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh began burning up the airwaves -- all packed with Rasta dogma, mostly using biblical metaphors.

Marley's upbeat reggae rhythm combined with the passion of his lyrics - he called on his fans to stand up for their rights and to live righteously - propelled his discs to the top of the worldwide charts again and again until his death in 1981 at age 36.


Dreadlocked Bob Marley turned the world on to Rastafarianism.

Legends of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba live on, as do tales of the hoopoe bird. In one story, the Queen challenges Solomon to build a palace for her out of bird beaks. He then commands all the birds in the world to give up their beaks, which they do - all but the hoopoe, who charges Solomon with depriving the world of bird beaks just to impress Makeda. The king agrees that he was being selfish, and rewards the hoopoe with a crown of golden feathers. According to the story, all hoopoes have been born with a golden crown ever since.

The foot-long hoopoe is seen today in Asia, Europe, some parts of Africa and in Israel, where it's the latter country's national bird.

All photos by Bob Schulman.