The Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. (Mosaic)

By Wells, Rhona | The Middle East, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

The Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. (Mosaic)


Wells, Rhona, The Middle East


Only in legend is her existence a certainty, an icon of female power and beauty, the Queen of Sheba is a prominent figure in three religions as well as a popular character in the folklore of the Islamic world and Ethiopia; she is perceived as Queen of the South in the Christian world, Ethiopian in Ethiopia and Yemeni in the Arab world.

The mysteries that surround this mythical monarch provide the link for an exhibition featuring the ancient civilisation of Yemen, at the British Museum in London.

The introductory section of the Queen of Sheba exhibition is dedicated to popular knowledge of this enigmatic figure, from some of the earliest representations from the book of Kings from Ethiopia, to major works of art from the Renaissance and 19th century, not omitting the importance in cinematic terms with the part played by Gina Lollobrigida in King Vidor's movie Solomon and Sheba in 1959.

The earliest reference to her was found in the Bible where she is portrayed as a mysterious queen who travelled far, with a vast camel caravan laden with gold, spices, incense and precious stones to visit King Solomon. The event is represented at the exhibition with the flamboyant painting by Scottish artist John Duncan, entitled of Ivory, Apes and Peacocks but better known as The Queen of Sheba, as well as by the superbly detailed watercolour by Edward Poynter, depicting the arrival of Sheba at Solomons court.

In the Koran the queen is portrayed as a pagan sun worshiper, who on hearing of Solomon's greatness, goes to meet him and converts to Islam. The Queen of Sheba and the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger, depicts an important moment in the Koranic tradition.

The story of the Queen of Sheba is given great credence in Ethiopia, where she is believed to have introduced Christianity and given birth to Solomon's son and heir Menelik, the first King of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty.

As a potent historical Yemeni figure, the Queen of Sheba, known in the Arab world as Bilkis, provides the natural links to much of the archaeological work and discoveries from this area, which is entwined with the trade routes of spices, incense and silks, some of the major riches once traded in this area. Many of the Yemeni artefacts on display are part of an exhibition that has visited several European cities since it opened in the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 1997.

Ornate incense burners and aromatic resins underline the importance of this trade in the ancient economies; the scent of frankincense wafts through the exhibition bringing to life the heady atmosphere of antiquity and the Arab world. The lucrative incense trade was the mainstay of much of the region's economy; during the reign of Darius (521-486BC) a massive 25 tonnes of frankincense was traded. It was the domestication of the camel, in the first millennium BC that allowed this trade to flourish far and wide as indicated by an ancient alabaster incense burner which features camels as its decorative motif.

Yemen and Oman were the greatest producers of the much sought after frankincense, while Somalia and Yemen were producers of large quantities of myrrh, another resin used in incense recipes, leading to the phenomenal growth in trade routes through the region.

The development of local arts and crafts with influences from the Persian Empire and the classical world are revealed through artefacts such as the exquisite gold bull's head, the symbol of the Sabaean national deity, Almaqah.

A bronze statue of Ma'dikarib is just one of the magnificent treasures unearthed from the Awwam temple at Marib, during the 1951-52 expedition led by Wendell Phillips, the founder of the American Foundation for the Study of Man.

Gold jewellery, pottery, glass, metalwork and decorative architectural elements reveal some of the aspects of daily life. The gold amulet necklaces are particularly attractive and ornate. …

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