Yemen culture in crisis (1): The Queen of Sheba and female identity in Ancient South Arabia

Yemen, once known to Roman writers as ‘Happy Arabia’, is in a terrible state and declared by the UN to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. It is poor, lacks oil, is short of water, subject to conflict since 2014, and ravaged by disease, famine and Covid-19. It has a rich and ancient history, but its culture is being destroyed, with museums and World Heritage sites bombed from the air, sites looted or destroyed, and staff struggling to safeguard their collections while looking after their families and livelihoods1.

In April 2016, ten museums worked together under UNESCO’s #Unite4Heritage campaign to highlight the rich cultural heritage of Yemen and the risk of loss through this conflict. The programme was closely co-ordinated and ran over a single week. The museums involved were the British Museum, Ashmolean Museum, State Hermitage Museum, Peter the Great Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), State Museum of Oriental Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Freer and Sackler, Walters Art Museum, Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’ and the Musée du Louvre. Each drew on their own strengths and audiences, some making special displays or public talks around the displays, and others harnessing the media.

Our own Museum response was to focus on social media and the impact was huge, with some deeply moving personal responses. Twitter had 27,976,317 impressions and 2,339 retweets; a video and five Facebook posts (on the subjects of personal sculptures, religion, bulls, incense and the Queen of Sheba) attained 284,900 views and 10,400 shares or interactions; a Periscope video had 1,764 views and 1,000 more over the next 24 hours; the average weekly rate of 500 Tumblr post likes/shares rose to over 2,300; and five printed articles reached a combined readership circulation of 140,500. Social media platforms and providers have moved on but the numbers speak for themselves and underline what a powerful resource for good is out there, and how we need to use it more to get our messages across to the global public.

Seven years on, the situation in Yemen is even more dire, but is now a forgotten war, eclipsed by more recent conflicts, politics and the pandemic. We are living in an era where the public need trusted voices and appreciate why cultural heritage is important for us all. There is a place for museums to engage here: avoiding political sides but reminding the world of the fragility of culture in conflict, and how it should be cherished and nurtured. Culture is a healer and a means of crossing political borders.

Figure 1. The first member of the public sees the display and, in her words: ‘I was drawn to the display by the record cover. I love the way it flows from the new to the old and how the lovely seated lady is smiling ... the colour red really pulls you to the display’

Figure 1. The first member of the public sees the display and, in her words: ‘I was drawn to the display by the record cover. I love the way it flows from the new to the old and how the lovely seated lady is smiling … the colour red really pulls you to the display’ (© British Museum)

On 3rd May this year we replaced our previous display of ancient South Arabia with the first of what is intended to be a series of rotations drawn from our own collection. The subject? The Queen of Sheba and female identity in ancient South Arabia (Figure 1). The phrase ‘Queen of Sheba’ evokes beauty, wisdom, mystery, wealth and the exotic, from England to Ethiopia, from America to Iran (Figure 2). Also known as ‘the Queen of the South’, Nicaulis, Bilqis or Maqeda, she led Rudyard Kipling to write: ‘There was never a Queen like Balkis / From here to the wide world’s end’2. In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer exalts the king’s infant daughter, Elizabeth, with the words ‘Saba was never more covetous of wisdom and fair virtue than this pure soul shall be’3. Such was her imagined beauty that the 17th-century poet George Wither described the subject of a sonnet as ‘another Sheba queen’, and she featured as one of the Famous Beauties in a cigarette card series issued by John Player in 19314.

Figure 2. Pictorial soundtrack recording from the King Vidor film, Solomon and Sheba (1959), featuring Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner (The British Museum, EPH-ME.250)

Figure 2. British Museum, EPH-ME.250. Pictorial soundtrack recording from the King Vidor film, Solomon and Sheba (1959), featuring Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner (© British Museum)

The story behind this is complex and includes a strong whiff of allegory. The subject of the meeting between the Queen and Solomon, icons of wealth and wisdom, was not lost on Western European artists5. The Italian painter Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) featured members of the Mantuan court in his painting of The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon6. The combination of attributes, combined with a Bible story, added respectability. Solomon and the Queen became role-models and one of the most popular subjects on 15th-century Italian painted bridal chests and 17th-century English embroideries7. Today, Sheba is a global brand with positive connotations ranging from coffee to beauty products and gourmet cat food (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Queen of Sheba-branded Japanese coffee drink (The British Museum, EPH-ME.97, presented by St John Simpson)

Figure 3. British Museum, EPH-ME.97. Queen of Sheba-branded Japanese coffee drink (© British Museum by St John Simpson)

There is, however, a darker side. One Arab history relates how she was the daughter of a king of Yemen and a powerful local jinn. Across the Islamic world she was therefore regarded as a demon8. The biblical references to how ‘she came to test him with hard questions’ thus marks a powerful challenge to the established male order, and he was said to have relied on his own genii to set her complicated riddles. Successful in solving these, almost to the end, she was only fooled when she lifted her skirts to prevent them getting wet on what she believed to be a sheet of water but which turned out to be a floor of polished glass or marble9. The point of this was that, once Solomon had seen her legs, he was reassured that they were not unfashionably hairy or, worse still, the hideously hirsute legs of a child-strangling demon10. But because her ankles ‘were most certainly hairy’, according to this tale, the king’s unease – compounded by her unwillingness to submit herself to shaving with a naked blade – forced a compromise. This was, according to other Islamic writers, a depilatory bath. This moment of female submission to the male caught the imagination of Hollywood but transformed into something more sexual in King Vidor’s 1959 film Solomon and Sheba, in turn inspiring the marketing men to urge cinemas to mount a bathtub scene in their foyers as ‘a stunt which should attract much attention’11.

In these different stories, the couple appear to have been finely matched. The Queen acknowledged the power of Solomon’s god – Yahweh in the Bible or Allah in the Qur’an – and then returned home, but not before the king gave her ‘all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty’. Unsurprisingly, this phrase has given rise to some rich interpretations. To some, Solomon and Sheba were the lovers in The Song of Songs, called The Song of Solomon in the English Authorised Version of the Bible. In this, the woman cries out that ‘I am black, but comely’.

Figure 4. This is a classic example of branded marketing of the Sheba story but in this case applied to Ethiopian coffee sold in the capital of Addis Ababa: the pictures represent the story in typical Ethiopian strip-cartoon format with Amharic labels for each scene (The British Museum, 2012.2024.1, presented by Frances Guy)

Figure 4. British Museum, 2012.2024.1. This is a classic example of branded marketing of the Sheba story but in this case applied to Ethiopian coffee sold in the capital of Addis Ababa: the pictures represent the story in typical Ethiopian strip-cartoon format with Amharic labels for each scene (© British Museum by Frances Guy)

Only rarely is the queen shown as black although many artists chose to depict one or more of her servants as dark-skinned, while others emphasised her exoticism by adding the odd parrot or peacock among her offerings. However, it is the Ethiopian tradition which dwells in most detail on the union of Solomon and Queen Maqeda (Figure 4). According to the 14th century Ethiopian book The Glory of the Kings, she bore Solomon a son, Menelik, who was hailed as the first in a new royal line from which the emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) claimed direct descent12. As in the Middle East, there is much local superstition ascribing monuments across northern Ethiopia to her.

Behind these tangled tales lies an equally complex historical picture. The earliest reference to a Queen of Sheba is in the Old Testament Book of Kings, where she arrives in Jerusalem ‘with a very great caravan’ and presents Solomon with ‘120 talents [4 tons] of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones’. This passage purports to date to the 10th century, when Solomon is conventionally dated, but was not written down until much later and possibly not until the 6th century. By this period there was extensive caravan trade out of South Arabia, and Yemen is one of the few parts of the Middle East to have gold and aromatics, while the stones probably originated in India. Was this a case of a royal marriage with a hefty dowry or some form of trade deal? Simply a myth? Or a myth with ingredients of truth and popular belief?

Returning to ancient Yemen, what sources do we have? There are many royal inscriptions but all refer to men. Sheba was a real kingdom, however, as the name is derived from that of ancient Saba, centred on its capital at Marib. Trade connections with the southern Levant also existed, as is clear from the archaeological evidence and the rapid diffusion of alphabetic script into southern Arabia by the beginning of the first millennium BC.

The existence of the ‘Queen of Sheba’ will always be in doubt but kings have queens, and there must have been many queens of Sheba and powerful women resonate in ancient South Arabian sculpture. There is a fine selection of such figures and busts in the British Museum, from different sites, but mostly carved from a fine local variety of limestone known as calcite and which resembles alabaster. Most were made for placing in tombs as permanent memorials of deceased individuals, although one large seated statue was intended to be seen in the round and may have been dedicated in a temple. Many hundreds of the smaller carvings survive and, although stylised, are sufficiently different to one another as to suggest individual workshops and possibly even responses to personal requests to customise the carving. The pride with which these ladies show their hair, make-up and jewellery suggest that veiling was not a feature of local society at this period, and helps contrast practice with the Classical world or the modern Middle East.

 
Figures 5-6. British Museum, 134694. Ancient South Arabian sculpture of a seated lady (© British Museum, by St John Simpson)

Figure 7. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with representation of tight braided hair (The British Museum, 2002,0114.7, presented by Jonathan Hassell)

Figure 7. British Museum, 2002,0114.7. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with representation of tight braided hair (© British Museum by Jonathan Hassell)

One large seated figure is exceptional as only a small number of ancient South Arabian sculptures are as large as this (Figure 5). It exudes confidence and comfort, and her hair is represented as a long plait running down her back (Figure 6).

Another piece, a carved head, also emphasises elaborate fine plaiting in a manner reminiscent of hairstyles in Eastern Africa (Figure 7): given the compelling archaeological evidence for ancient South Arabian settlements in the highlands of Ethiopia, is this evidence for a more ancient cultural tradition that crossed into Yemen, and surely an attempt at portraiture of a particular individual.

Figure 8. British Museum, 141544. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with representation of jewellery (© British Museum)

Figure 8. British Museum, 141544. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with representation of jewellery (© British Museum)

Another bust in the display is notable for its representation of a necklace, symbolising wealth and status (Figure 8). Relatively little personal jewellery survives from ancient South Arabia but a small amount of high-quality gold jewellery is known (albeit unprovenanced)13, and Yemen is one of the few regions in the Middle East where gold occurs, in this case mined rather than panned from alluvial deposits14.

Figure 9. British Museum 2003,1219.1. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with coloured glass inlays to highlight facial details (© The British Museum)

Figure 9. British Museum 2003,1219.1. Ancient South Arabian sculpture with coloured glass inlays to highlight facial details (© The British Museum)

One final portrait bust is highlighted with coloured inlays which accentuate her red lips and dark eyebrows and red lips (Figure 9). Coloured inlays like these are usually missing from other South Arabian sculptures as they either fell out or were considered unsightly. The eyebrows, pupils and eyeliner were set with dark cobalt blue glass, and published scientific analyses of the inlays suggest the glass came from Egypt, possibly as raw chunks which were melted in local workshops.

The coloured lips were made by inlaying a piece of red glass set in plaster coloured with ochre in order to avoid the otherwise disconcerting impression of a white outline around the lips. The prominence of the red raises the obvious that lipstick was already being worn here, and another hint at the antiquity of the ancient cosmetic industry of which we have snippets from Sumer, eastern Iran and Bactria during the third and early second millennia BC.15.

This selection of objects creates an impactful temporary display in its juxtaposition of mixed media and, by incorporating the contemporary, it tells a story which helps brings antiquity into the present. Seeing how the public react is an area we intend to test through questionnaire interviews, and from the evaluations we can map out other displays. Museums are often regarded as static, old-fashioned and reactive: cases like this prove the opposite but, ultimately, the success of the display lies in raising public awareness about the richness of the cultural heritage of Yemen, and how this can be preserved for future generations.

 

 

References
Khalidi, L. 2015. Yemeni Heritage, Saudi Vandalism. The New York Times 26th June.
Lassner, J. 1993. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Littmann, E. 1904. The Legend of the Queen of Sheba in the Tradition of Axum. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2002. The Queen of Sheba in Western Popular Culture 1850–2000, in St J. Simpson (ed.) Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen: 12–30. London: British Museum.
Mallory-Greenough, L., J.D. Greenough and C. Fipke 2000. Iron Age Gold Mining: A Preliminary Report on Camps in the Al Maraziq Region, Yemen. Arabian archaeology and epigraphy 11: 223–36.
Nissan, E. 2015. The Importance of Being Hairy: A Few Remarks on the Queen of Sheba, Esau, and the Andromeda Myth. La Ricerca Folklorica 70: 273–83.
Pennachietti, F.A. 2002. Legends of the Queen of Sheba, in St J. Simpson (ed.) Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen: 31–38. London: British Museum.
Pennachietti, F.A. 2013. Mirrors for Two Biblical Ladies. The Queen of Sheba and Susanna in the Eyes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Biblical Intersections 14). Piscataway [New Jersey]: Gorgias Press.
Simpson, St J. 2021. Heavy metal and the beauty industry: an unexpected connection from ancient Afghanistan. Academia Letters, Article 352. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL352.
Simpson, St J. 2023. Bronze Age horn-shaped containers and cosmetics: a new identification for a conical stone object excavated at Parkai-II, Sumbar valley, south-west Turkmenistan. Al-Rafidan 44: 35–43.
Simpson, St J. (ed.) 2002. Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen. London: British Museum.
Turner, G. 1973. South Arabian Gold Jewellery. Iraq 35/2 (autumn): 127–39.
Ullendorf, E. 1955. Candace and the Queen of Sheba. New Testament Studies 2/1: 53–56.
Ullendorf, E. 1963. The Queen of Sheba. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 45/2: 486–504.
Wheeler, P. 1936. The golden legend of Ethiopia. The Love Story of Maqeda, Virgin Queen of Axum and Sheba, and Solomon the Great King. London / New York: D. Appleton and Co.

  1. Khalidi 2015. []
  2. Kipling, ‘The butterfly that stamped’. []
  3. Act 5, scene 4. []
  4. Wither, ‘I Loved a Lass’. []
  5. Pennachietti 2002. []
  6. National Gallery of Ireland, see cover image. https://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/lavinia-fontana/the-visit-of-the-queen-of-sheba-to-king-solomon/#:~:text=The%20Visit%20of%20the%20Queen%20of%20Sheba%20to,Public%20Domain%2C%20and%20tagged%20Royalty%20and%20Political%20Work. []
  7. For a handy checklist of sources on the Queen of Sheba in art and popular culture, see https://www.academia.edu/14986468/The_Queen_of_Sheba_in_art_and_popular_culture_a_working_annotated_bibliography []
  8. Lassner 1993. []
  9. Pennachietti 2013. []
  10. The wider context of these concerns are discussed by Nissan 2015. []
  11. Llewellyn-Jones 2002. []
  12. Littmann 1904; Ullendorf 1955; 1963; Wheeler 1936. []
  13. Turner 1973. []
  14. Mallory-Greenough, Greenough and Fipke 2000. []
  15. Simpson 2021; 2023. []

St John Simpson

I am an archaeologist and senior curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, responsible for the collections from Iran, Arabia and Central Asia, and specialising in the archaeology and material culture of the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. I am also responsible for managing relations and processes across the Museum by which stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities identified by the Museum on behalf of law enforcement, the art trade or private individuals can be exhibited, published and repatriated to their countries of origin. I have directed excavations in Iraq and Turkmenistan, and worked on other projects in Georgia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Russia. I strongly believe that working across modern political borders helps us to better understand and appreciate cultures, ancient and modern, and that museums offer a powerful means of engaging with multiple audiences and stakeholders, inclusive of academic, popular, governmental, old and young. Archaeology and fieldwork also enable us to re-interpret old collections, and that is an essential part of museum research and curation. ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9884-7637

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OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
St John Simpson (1 juillet 2023). Yemen culture in crisis (1): The Queen of Sheba and female identity in Ancient South Arabia. Sociétés humaines du Proche-Orient ancien. Consulté le 15 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/b5p1


St John Simpson

I am an archaeologist and senior curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, responsible for the collections from Iran, Arabia and Central Asia, and specialising in the archaeology and material culture of the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. I am also responsible for managing relations and processes across the Museum by which stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities identified by the Museum on behalf of law enforcement, the art trade or private individuals can be exhibited, published and repatriated to their countries of origin. I have directed excavations in Iraq and Turkmenistan, and worked on other projects in Georgia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Russia. I strongly believe that working across modern political borders helps us to better understand and appreciate cultures, ancient and modern, and that museums offer a powerful means of engaging with multiple audiences and stakeholders, inclusive of academic, popular, governmental, old and young. Archaeology and fieldwork also enable us to re-interpret old collections, and that is an essential part of museum research and curation. ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9884-7637

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