Queen of Sheba

Treasures from ancient Yemen

In 2002 the British Museum held an exhibition entitled "Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen", described in the notes below. 

The museum produced a catalogue for the exhibition (available from Amazon) which has 12 chapters on Sheba in western popular culture and legend, what exactly is known about Saba' and the Sabaeans (the kingdom in southern Arabia associated with Sheba), the incense trade, agriculture, arts, architecture, languages and writing, religion and death and funerary practices. More than 300 items are described and illustrated with photographs. 

THE MYTH and mystery of the Queen of Sheba provides an introduction to the magnificent ancient civilisation of Yemen, where she is believed to have originated. The exhibition, sponsored by Barclays PLC, focuses on the importance and splendour of the kingdoms of Southern Arabia that prospered through a lucrative trade in incense and other precious commodities to the Near East and Roman Empire. Spectacular artefacts from the Museum’s own collections and on loan from the American Foundation for the Study of Man and museums across Yemen will bring to life the history of a complex civilisation mostly unfamiliar to a Western audience.
The exhibition will begin with an examination of the Queen of Sheba in art, looking at modern, 19th century and Renaissance representations. She is variously viewed as a figure of beauty and seduction, the propounder of riddles to King Solomon (the Old Testament), a convert to Islam (the Qur’an), and a precursor of the Magi (Western Christian artistic tradition). 

The story of the Queen of Sheba is extremely important to the national and religious identity of Ethiopia where she is thought to have introduced Christianity and given birth to Solomon’s son and heir, Menelik, the first king of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty. This story is transcribed in the Kebra Nagast, on loan from the British Library. Paintings -including a previously unpublished, superbly detailed watercolour by Edward Poynter depicting the arrival of Sheba at the court of Solomon - as well as prints, drawings and film stills will be used to show different interpretations of the Sheba legend.

The early history and cultural development of Southern Arabia is explored through new archaeological discoveries which illustrate the existence of a rich Bronze Age culture in Yemen. Important inscriptions belonging to the first Millennium BC mark the beginning of the historical period, a bronze statue of a Sabaean warrior and alabaster statues depicting later rulers of the rival kingdom of Aswan, illustrate the early history of the region. Extravagant incense burners and aromatic resins highlight the mainstay of the ancient economy, and the evocative smell of incense will be used to enrich the atmosphere in the gallery. Examples of decorative architectural elements, religious iconography, gold jewellery, pottery, glass and metalwork will reveal aspects of daily life in the area. 

The development of local arts and crafts with influences from the Persian empire and the classical world will be revealed through artefacts such as the exquisitely crafted miniature gold bull’s head, the revered symbol of the Sabaean national deity, Almaqah, which will go on display for the first time. A recently conserved bronze altar with bull’s head spouts provides a unique insight into religious practice in the 6th century BC and a lifelike bronze hand with a dedicatory inscription offers a glimpse into popular superstition. Funerary sculptures and grave offerings, including the beautiful alabaster head of a woman nicknamed ‘Myriam’, reveal the different attitudes to death and the afterlife in ancient Yemen.