Inside the Land of Sheba

By Pepper, Tara | Newsweek International, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Inside the Land of Sheba


Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International


The legend of the queen of Sheba runs like a glittering thread through the world's three monotheistic civilizations, embodying everything from religious allegory to love story. The Old Testament and Qur'an describe Sheba, the alluring ruler of a vast Arabian trading empire, arriving at the court of King Solomon with gifts of gold, incense and precious stones. Medieval artists and commentators saw her as a symbol of the future church. (In Solomon, whose intelligence the queen tested with riddles, they discerned the precursor of Christ.) Today Sheba is also known as a siren. She is Gina Lollobrigida's bejeweled Oriental seductress in the 1959 film "Solomon and Sheba," and Flaubert's dusky beauty who declares: "All the women you ever met... ask for them, every one! I am not a woman but a world. My clothes need only fall away for you to discover in my person one continuous mystery."

Now the British Museum is doing its part to help unravel that mystery. A major exhibit, opening this week, combines artifacts from Yemeni museums with some of the British Museum's own rarely seen Arabian treasures to help trace the development of Sheba's wealthy kingdom, called Saba by its eighth-century B.C. inhabitants. "Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen" (from June 9 to Oct. 13, then traveling to Madrid; Valencia, Spain; Brussels and Venice) offers a rare glimpse of this complex civilization, bringing recent discoveries about its past to the public for the first time. The curators have included inscriptions listing kings, battles and treaties that help date the development of Saba's most renowned sites, like Shabwah, and religious iconography--including a recently found bronze altar with bull's head spouts--that explain the culture's pantheon of gods and its attitudes toward death. Jewelry, pottery, glass and metalwork give a picture of everyday existence, while ornate bronze and alabaster incense burners underscore the kingdom's reliance on the frankincense trade. Paintings, prints, photographs and film stills explore the ways the legend of the queen has been reinterpreted from the Renaissance to modern times.

The mystery surrounding the Queen of Sheba and the land she ruled has been fueled by southern Yemen's impenetrability. The country's harsh desert landscape still has few roads, and its notoriously well-armed tribes make travel risky. To flesh out the world that the British Museum exhibit depicts, NEWSWEEK--in conjunction with the museum-- arranged a rare visit to Yemen and its isolated desert cities, which sprang up along the ancient incense route.

In a convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers we leave Yemen's capital, Sana, at 3 a.m. to beat the sun rising over the desert. Traveling through the heart of Sheba's kingdom, we drive across the Wadi Hadramawt, a dusty, rocky valley, dotted with lush oases, which has supplied frankincense to the altars of the world at least since the camel was domesticated around the 10th century B.C. Pausing at a checkpoint on the edge of the desert, we let air out of the tires to facilitate driving over the sand. We also pick up a truckload of armed soldiers--our protection against the Bedouin who have been known to kidnap the region's rare tourists. …

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