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October 17, 2004 - March 13, 2005 at Bowers Museum, Orange County

by Daniella Walsh

You might call it archeology, ancient culture light or fusion culture, but does that mean that “Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality. . .” is to be taken lightly? On the contrary, artifacts from the region around Marib, the capital of the Arab empire known as Saba (Yemen today) combined with artists’ interpretations and still photographs from films about the legendary queen, shed some light on mysteries that historians, archeologists and biblical scholars are still trying to unravel.

On loan from the British Museum and curated by St. John Simpson, funerary artifacts, tablets covered with elegant writing, ancient coins and religious relics show that the ancient Sabaeans, as Sheba’s subjects were known, worshipped multiple gods with the sun as the supreme deity. Fragments of a sixth century B.C altar dedicated to the god Rahmaw, and a bronze hand bearing script dedicated to the god Talab are outstanding finds, as are a stunning, 2nd century AD. bronze head of a young man and a few charming replicas of domestic animals. Practitioners of calligraphy will find Sabaean writing fascinating, as it resembles neither Arab, Latin or Greek script, but can be very loosely compared to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

While the objects are not consistently compelling, they offer insight into an advanced, complex and relatively wealthy culture financed through trade in frankincense and myrrh. Sabaean architects built “skyscrapers” up to eight stories high, as well as palaces and elaborate funerary chambers. Clothing and jewelry, on the other hand, show surprisingly simple lines, a far cry from the lavish ensembles that later Middle-Eastern and Western artists invented for the legendary femme fatale who graces the pages of the Bible as well as the Qu’ran (Koran).
Images credit: Reproduced by permission
of the Trustees of the British Museum.

"Head of a Man," ca. 2nd
century AD, bronze.

"Funerary Stela" (detail), ca. 1st
century BC, calcite-alabaster.

"Inscribed Hand Dedicated to the God
Talab," ca. 2nd-3rd century AD, bronze.

"The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) Facing the Hoopoe, Solomon;'s Messenger," ca. 1590-1600, tinted drawing on paper.

Original movie poster featuring Betty Blythe
in the titled role of "Queen of Sheba," 1921.
Later depictions of Sheba show artists imprinted their ideas of style and beauty on her appearance with intriguing or at times somewhat comical results. A 15th century Persian drawing (“The Queen of Sheba (Bilquis) Facing the Hoopoe” depicts her as a dark-eyed stunner clad in a tunic and gathered trousers (harem pants in today’s parlance). Hoopoes, by the way were, in Arab lore, magical birds capable of comprehending human speech and relaying messages between Solomon and Sheba.

During the 18th century, French artists like Claude Olivier Gallimard see her as an amply endowed, Rococo-gowned beauty. 19th century painter Edward John Poynter turns her into a bare-breasted temptress in “The Queen’s Visit to Solomon.”

To his credit, curator Simpson includes a series of modern vignettes depicting Sheba as the ur-mother of the Ethiopian empirical succession starting with her son Menelik and ending with Haile Selassie (1892-1975) the Rastafarian’s spiritual patron. Modern Ethiopian illustrators have no qualms about adorning bags of roast coffee with cartoon-like vignettes from her life as well as parchment and canvas church banners depicting the progress of Solomon and Sheba’s romance as instigated by a series of contrivances on the part of the king.

Did Sheba really exist or is she the result of a rich tapestry of ancient and modern lore? For example, historian /author Nicholas Clapp, who wrote of Sheba in “Through the Desert: in Search of the Legendary Queen,” is not entirely convinced that the woman as described in King of Kings really existed, suggesting instead that she might be a composite of the prolific Solomon’s conquests.

The exhibition does not offer conclusive answers but gives an insight into the ancient history of a region that, due to cultural and political forces, had been closed to exploration for decades. For that reason (and bolstered by exhibition designer Paul Johnson’s consistent expertise), this blockbuster’s pretensions and matching admission prices aside, the show is indeed a worthy destination.