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Treasures from Saba Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005
by Ann Steinsapir

[image] Sabaean artifacts: a cast-bronze head from the second century A.D. and an alabaster incense burner with the image of a rider and camel from the third century A.D. (Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Queen of Sheba has captured the imagination of storytellers and artists since the biblical account of her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem, where she arrived with a huge retinue bearing gifts of incense, gold, and jewels. She has been an enduring figure from Persia to the British Isles since antiquity. So "The Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality" at the Bowers Museum, in Santa Ana, California, through March 13, will draw visitors.

However, the focus of the exhibition is not the queen but the material culture of Saba (in what is now Yemen), a powerful economic player in the trade routes from India to the Mediterranean from about 800 B.C. to A.D. 200. Its title is unfortunate, because the objects on display--including stelae, coins, jewelry, and statuary--stand beautifully on their own without the glamorous hook of the queen.

Curated with the British Museum from the latter's renowned "Queen of Sheba" show in 2002, the exhibition does a fine job of presenting the language, religion, funerary customs, and architecture of Saba. The sculpture is especially remarkable, as seen in a classically inspired second-century A.D. cast-bronze head and a sixth-century B.C. cast-bronze altar on which rows of sphinxes visually echo the dedicatory inscription in stylized Sabaean letters above them. Saba's wealth also came from the production of frankincense; a third-century A.D. alabaster incense burner showing a camel and rider underscores its status in antiquity as an indispensable medicinal and aromatic ingredient. The exhibition includes the history of Western interest in the region, which led to formal archaeological excavations in the last century.

While the five galleries devoted to Saba offer a splendid introduction to a culture rarely seen in the U.S., the entrance corridor is a disappointing collection of artifacts such as drawings, prints, and tourist souvenirs whose only commonality is the image of the queen. It neither forms a clear link to the archaeological material nor adequately addresses the legend-or-reality angle of the exhibition title. The Queen of Sheba deserves better than that.

Ann Steinsapir is a Near East specialist and museum educator with the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America