Treasure fit for a queen

The Queen of Sheba - the very name conjures images of feminine power and intrigue, but most of all, mystery. Hollywood's sexiest stars have played her; Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike lay claim to her. Yet, over millenniums, the question has remained: Who was this enigmatic woman?

A definitive answer is maddeningly elusive. But recent archaeological finds and a new exhibition, "Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality," have begun to pierce the veil of tradition and myth surrounding the queen.

Despite any physical evidence that she existed, the exhibition at Bowers Museum here in Santa Ana, Calif., makes a case that the queen has become a cultural mirror, reflecting attitudes about race and gender through the ages.

"She's like a projection screen," says Carole Fontaine, professor of Biblical history and theology at Andover Newton School of Theology in Newton Centre, Mass. "Whatever the culture is ambivalent about, Sheba comes to embody."

The Bowers Museum has pulled together more than 100 artifacts from the British Museum along with cultural objects from around the world that breathe life into Sheba's world - sometime between the 10th and the 6th century BC.

Everyday objects such as jewelry, pottery, coins, and drinking cups ground the legendary figure in the daily life of the southern Arabian kingdom of Saba, now Yemen, where she is thought to have ruled. The show also explores the Sheba mystique that has persisted for thousands of years. Take, for example, the popularity in medieval Europe of the Sheba and Solomon story. The Bible describes Sheba, queen of a wealthy land, paying breathless tribute to the wise and powerful Solomon. Christians in medieval Europe, who Professor Fontaine says associated dark skin with heathens, were fond of this story because it was their only way of understanding black skin as a positive thing. "The queen was a bright spot," she adds, and may be linked to the longstanding tradition of black madonnas in Europe.

The exhibition opens with popular imagery of the queen through the centuries, everything from Renaissance etchings to Hollywood films. There is a black-and-white movie still from the 1959 King Vidor film with Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner as Sheba and Solomon, as well as a 1549 etching that shows the queen on her knees before Solomon. A 16th- century Persian drawing shows the queen languishing by a stream, clothed in an intricately designed robe, while drawings from 20th- century Egypt show her in various poses. In rooms beyond that, the show opens into a more traditional antiquities exhibition.

"We can demonstrate the place, the economic truths, show what individuals of the time looked like," says St. John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum. "The only thing we can't provide here is the queen herself," he says with a rueful laugh. But "she rises from these objects, and her spirit floats through the show."

The exhibition is the first in a series of joint ventures between the two institutions, bringing many objects never before displayed to the United States. The British Museum produced a version of the Sheba exhibition in 2002, but expanded the concept to bring it to the US.

Little is actually known about the queen, and all the references are in religious texts. Sheba shows up in the Koran as well as in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Her name in Arabic is Bilqis; Greeks called her Black Minerva; and the Ethiopians dubbed her Makeda. The name Sheba is actually an alternate spelling for Saba, the Yemeni kingdom she is said to have ruled in the 9th century BC.

The Old Testament provides what scholars consider the first reliable account of her existence, but the mention is brief and sketchy. Yet, despite the conflicting traditions, scholars are determined to pursue the search, says William Glanzman, a professor at the University of Calgary and project director for the Wadi Raghwan Archaeological Project in Yemen.

"Thousands of tons of wind-blown soil and lots of archaeological remains are there to uncover, so there are numerous discoveries to be made," says the archaeologist. Sheba myths existed in oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. Rather than a single queen, he says Sheba is an amalgam. "We have many queens from the region," he says. "[Each] may have contributed in some small way to the mysterious and enigmatic Queen of Sheba."

Nicholas Clapp, author of "Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen," believes there was a single queen. Despite the mounting number of artifacts, "none of the writings or objects contradict her existence," says the writer, who chased the queen's story across four continents and used satellite images and carbon dating to piece together clues to her identity. "This is significant, because typically the more archaeologists find about a mythical figure, [the more] they will tear the legends apart. In this case, quite the contrary is true."

Sheba's importance today also connects us to the accomplishments of another time. For example, "irrigation systems were so sophisticated that only in the past 50 years have people improved on them," says Mr. Clapp.

Even those who discount the popular mythology agree that Sheba's impact on the popular imagination is valuable. "Anything that advances our understanding of cultures and the Mideast is very useful in the context of what's happening in our world today," says William Schniedewind, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. For thousands of years the Middle East was a leader in the civilized world, he points out.

Sheba is equally important for what she reveals about changing cultural values. She presided over a polytheistic culture. As each major religion incorporated her story, it emphasized the triumph of the monotheistic tradition. She has also evolved into an icon used by the various cultures to validate their views about women and power.

Fontaine at Andover Newton School of Theology calls it "the Hillary factor." "She's the Hillary Clinton of the Near East," she says, pointing out that Mrs. Clinton was perceived as an outsider. "Sheba idealizes the foreign, dangerous woman," she says. All the various retellings feature some element of her sexuality in her dealings with foreign leaders.

For example, the Ethiopian version emphasized their king's conquest over Sheba and positions their children as the foundation of the Ethiopian dynasty through modern times. "They [these cultures] can't imagine a woman leader who doesn't rule through sex," Fontaine says. Sheba is a historical marker pointing to a hidden past of powerful female rulers.

"We've taught ourselves that women belong in a domestic sphere, but here's a woman who succeeded in such a powerful way that three major world religions remember her."

"Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality" will continue at the Bowers through March 13, 2005.

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