Legend of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is one of great mythopoeic power that has infiltrated numerous cultures outside Ethiopia. The earliest known version is preserved in two books of the Old Testament. Here we are told that the Queen of Sheba as a child called Makeda, lured by Solomon's fame, journeyed to Jerusalem with a great caravan of costly presents and there " communed with him of all that was in her heart ".

King Solomon, for his part, " gave to the Queen of Sheba all her desire . . . So she turned and went to her own land, she and her servants. " The Talmud also contains oblique references to the story, as does the New Testament (where Sheba is referred to as " the Queen of the South "). There is, in addition, a fairly detailed account in the Koran, echoed in several Arabic and Persian folk tales of later date (in which she is known as Bilqis).

Further afield, in southern Africa, the enigmatic stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe are said by the local Mashona people to have been the palace of the Queen of Sheba , and tribal elders still repeat their own fully evolved version of the legend. Of all these different narratives, however, it is the Ethiopian variant (where Sheba's name becomes Makeda) that is the richest and the most convincing - despite the fact that it does not seem to have been set down in writing until medieval times when it appeared in the Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), the Ethiopian national saga.

Ethiopians locate Sheba in Axum, from here, according to the Kebra Nagast , she was persuaded to travel to the court of Solomon by the head of her caravans - a man much impressed by the King's wisdom and might. In Jerusalem a banquet of specially seasoned meat was given in her honour and, at the end of the evening, Solomon invited her to spend the night in his chambers.

Sheba agreed, but first extracted a commitment from the King that he would not take her by force. To this he assented, on the single condition that the Queen make a promise not to take anything in his house. Solomon then mounted his bed on one side of the chamber and had the Queen's bed prepared at the other side, placing near it a bowl of water. Made thirsty by the seasoned food, Sheba soon awoke, arose, and drank the water. At this Point Solomon seized her hand and accused her of having broken her oath; he then " worked his will with her ".

That night the King dreamt that a brilliant light, the divine presence, had left Israel. Shortly afterwards the Queen departed and returned to her country and there, nine months and five days later, she gave birth to a son - Menelik, the founder of Ethiopia's Solomonic dynasty.

In due course, when the boy had grown, he went to visit his father who received him with great honour and splendour. After spending a year at court in Jerusalem, however, the prince determined to return once more to Ethiopia. When he was informed of this, Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and commanded them to send their first born sons with Menelik. Before the young men departed, however, they stole the Ark of the Covenant and took it with them to Ethiopia - which then, according to the Kebra Nagast, became " the second Zion ".

The notion that the Ark of the Covenant was removed from Jerusalem to Axum is central to the reverence accorded to the tabots, the Tablets of the Law, in Abyssinian Christian practices. The belief system of which the tabots are a part is, however, an unusual one. No other Christian Church gives such importance to what is, by definition, a pre-Christian - indeed a Judaic - tradition. Furthermore, the Christian faith did not itself reach Ethiopia until the fourth century AD - some one thousand three hundred years after Solomon's rule in Israel. The only satisfactory explanation for the unique position given to the Ark and to the tabots, therefore, is this: in Old Testament times, there must have been a period when there were very close cultural and religious links between Abyssinia and the Holy Land.