Bowers Explores the Mystery of Sheba


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

Timely Talk of History’s Attic


The timing could not have been better.

When the California Museum of Ancient Art scheduled its lecture series on "The Archaeology of Ancient Israel" to begin Monday, May 14, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, it could not have known that Rabbi David Wolpe’s Passover sermon touching on doubts about the historical accuracy of the Exodus story would spark a wave of local interest in Biblical archaeology.

The four lectures in the upcoming series will cover topics such as "The Age of Solomon: Myth or History," "New Light on Israelite History From Ancient Inscriptions" and "An Israelite Tribe Beyond the Jordan: Recent Discoveries at Tell Umayri."

The museum, which has no religious affiliation, schedules two or three lecture series a year on topics ranging from biblical archaeology to the late Bronze Age. It maintains its large collection of artifacts in a warehouse but has no exhibition space and usually uses the Gallery Theater in Barnsdall Park for its events. However, to retain the renowned scholars scheduled to participate, this series had to be coordinated months ago, and the Gallery Theater was unavailable for the scheduled dates. Luckily, Piness Auditorium in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was available.

According to Dr. Jerome Berman, executive director of the museum, the lectures are relevant beyond any local controversy, since scholars of history have recently garnered major media attention by questioning the Bible’s historical accuracy. The so-called "minimalists" or "revisionists" argue that biblical stories are primarily myths. The History Channel, the Learning Channel and even "Nightline" are producing segments on this topic. The theories also have political ramifications, as Palestinian activists cite the minimalists’ work to undermine Jewish claims on the Holy Land.

So the California Museum of Ancient Art organized these lectures to "help people understand what really happened, in the context of the Near East," Berman says. "The question is, what do we really know about ancient Israel outside of the Bible? Some of the lectures will show parallels with what we read in the Bible, and we see some discrepancies. Ultimately, we aim to understand the culture in which the Bible came into existence."

First up in the lecture series is Dr. William Dever, who will address the biblical minimalists’ arguments with recent findings that verify the existence of a united monarchy under King Solomon. In the second lecture, Dr. William Schniedewind will discuss some of the many inscriptions discovered in Israel that shed light on ancient Israelite history. Dr. Lawrence Geraty adds to the understanding of biblical-era Middle Eastern culture with his discussion of a settlement east of the Jordan River that bears telltale signs of Israelite settlement. Dr. John Monson delivers the final lecture, comparing Ain Dara temple in Syria with descriptions of King Solomon’s Temple.

The series is not meant to be an exhaustive overview of biblical archaeology but an introduction to some of the more interesting controversies and evidence relating to the Bible. As Berman says, "We’re trying to tell the story of the ancient world, to bring that world to life."

"The Archaeology of Ancient Israel," lecture series: $64 (series); $18 (individual lecture). Dr. William Dever lectures May 14; Dr. Schniedewind, May 21; Dr. Geraty, June 4; and Dr. Monson, June 11. Piness Auditorium, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To register for the lectures or for more information, call (818) 762-5500.

Another Melee Erupts as Women Pray with Men at WesternWall


The forcible eviction of the worshipers from Judaism’s mostrevered site came as thousands gathered there to mark Tisha B’Av, afast day marking the traditional anniversary of the destruction of,first, Solomon’s Temple and, then, Herod’s Temple.

The men and women were worshiping together in aspecially-designated area at the entrance to the plaza, a couple ofhundred yards from the wall itself.

Monday’s incident was the latest confrontation between OrthodoxJews and members of the other branches of Judaism, who have beenlocked in a divisive debate in the Knesset over the authority of theOrthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel.

“They’re symbolically, and more than symbolically, driving us outof the gates of Jerusalem,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of theReform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“Even in the former Soviet Union, Jews can pray in peace. To beexcluded from the most important Jewish place in the world gives ussome perspective on the issues. This isn’t about freedom of worship;this is about where Israel is going.”

Even as the police action occurred, a committee charged withstaving off a crisis over conversions, faces a deadline this week.

The committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, wasformed by the government to forge a path acceptable to the threemajor Jewish streams to avert the passage of controversial pendinglegislation.

Friday, Aug. 15, is the slated deadline for the committee’srecommendations, to be followed by the government coalition’sapproval by Sept. 5.

A recent unconfirmed report by the daily Ha’aretz said that thediscussions included a proposal by Ne’eman for the establishment of a”joint conversion school for all streams of Judaism.” The conversionitself would be performed in an Orthodox rabbinical court accordingto halacha. Such a proposal, the newspaper said, could be applied toother rituals, including marriage.

At the same time, the report continued, the Reform andConservative synagogues would, for the first time, receive governmentfunding “similar to those of Orthodox synagogues.” — Compiled fromWire Services