She arrived in the Jerusalem court of King Solomon with camels weighted by gifts of gold, incense and precious stones. She was armed with questions to test the king’s legendary wisdom. She eventually was thought to be his consort.
But who was the Queen of Sheba?
Using the fanciful myths about the Queen of Sheba as a starting point, Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum opens “Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality … Treasures From the British Museum,” an exhibit of 100 rarely seen Arabian treasures that attempt to give some context to a woman who figures in Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts.
The exhibit, which runs Oct. 17 through March 13, attempts to unravel the mythology surrounding the legendary ruler and the reality of a thriving ancient civilization at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, now present-day Yemen.
In an essay included in the exhibit catalogue by one of the curators, he concludes “there is more evidence for Sheba than Solomon,” according to Peter C. Keller, the Bowers’ president.
The Torah describes her arrival with the gold. In her entry in the Christian Bible, in the books of Matthew and Luke, she is known as “Queen of the South” and her voyage to Jerusalem is for salvation. She is also mentioned in the Quran. (In the Hollywood version, starring bejeweled Gina Lollobrigida in 1959’s “Solomon and Sheba,” the queen gets an erotic makeover.)
The mystery surrounding the Queen of Sheba, the legendary ruler of Saba, is bred by nine countries that claim her, including Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, said Nicholas Clapp, a curatorial consultant to the Bowers and author of “Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen” (Mariner Books, 2002). Her ancient kingdom prospered at the crossroads of ancient incense routes to Jerusalem and the Roman Empire.
Even 10 years ago, scholars maintained Sheba was little more than biblical nonsense, Clapp said, as Saban writing was then thought to have originated from Greek, around 800 B.C.E. Trading demanded a written language, but Solomon’s era predates the Greeks. More recent carbon dating of Saba finds are older, closer to 1200-1400 B.C.E., which would coincide with Solomon’s era.
“It’s not proved, but the biblical account fits the time and the trading,” Clapp said. “My question is whether Greek is derived from this.”
In keeping with the kingdom’s economic foundation, incense will scent the Bowers’ exhibit halls.
Half the exhibit is devoted to how artisans from the Renaissance to modern times reinterpreted Sheba. Included among the exhibit prints, drawings and film stills are works from the 1500s. In one, the queen is depicted falling to her knees before King Solomon, who is portrayed with the likeness of Henry VIII. Did the British empire span time, too? The depiction is attributed to a Dutch painter who coveted a court position, Clapp said. He apparently got the job.
The exhibit’s second half explores the ancient kingdom’s history and culture through archeological discoveries from the Bronze Age.
The British Museum and the National Museum of Yemen created the original Queen of Sheba exhibit 10 years ago. But a year ago when Keller returned to Britain to finalize the deal, Yemen was dissembling its portion. Instead, Keller had the rare opportunity of scouring the world’s largest and oldest museum for comparable replacements. He had no trouble.
Among the items common to both exhibitions is a bronze head, estimated to be from the second century, borrowed from Queen Elizabeth II. The bronze was a coronation gift from a Yemeni ruler to her father, King George VI, crowned in 1936.
The Kershaw Museum, located in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, plans a companion Sheba show. Its exhibition will include some objects from the Bowers’ Ethiopian collection and a reproduction of a chess set recovered by Clapp, who in the 1990s discovered and excavated the “lost city” of Ubar, in the present day Sultan of Oman. The king is topped by a six-pointed star.
The Kershaw exhibit, “Queen of Sheba’s Children: Jews of Ethiopia and Yemen,” includes a free dessert reception and lecture on Thurs., Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Semu M. Kebede, an Ethiopian now living in Los Angeles, will share his personal experiences as a Jewish outcast living in Ethiopia and his arduous walking trek across his country to freedom.
Norma Kershaw, a Bowers’ board member, has filled out her exhibit with Yemeni and Ethiopian art lent from the shelves of local residents.
The author of the Bowers’ exhibition catalogue, “Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality,” is curator St John Simpson of the British Museum’s Ancient Near East department. He will talk about the exhibition highlights at 1:30 p.m. on opening day.
In subsequent weeks, programs featuring scholars will look at Sheba’s relationship with Solomon, rival scenarios about her origin, the riddle of Sheba in the world’s three monotheistic traditions, Yemeni portrayals, her henna adornment, and the importance of aromatics in ancient Arabia.
The exhibit runs through March 13, 2005 at the Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). $14. For information, call (714) 567-3600. l