QUEST FOR A QUEEN

Print edition : February 02, 2002

A team of archaeologists excavates the site of an ancient temple in Yemen seeking to find any trail of the Queen of Sheba.

THE Queen of Sheba is no myth, or so the American archaeologist Merilyn Phillips Hodgson hopes to show the world. The president of the American Foundation for the Study of Man (AFSM), she has been excavating at Marib in Yemen since 1988, when she was awarded a renewable five-year contract to complete the work that her brother Wendell Phillips had started in 1951. Marib is 120 km east of Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The King of Yemen had authorised Phillips and his AFSM team to excavate at the site where the temple of Mahram Bilqis, also known as the Awwam temple, stood in Marib, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba. He abandoned his quest in February 1952, in the face of opposition to the project even from the Yemeni royal family.

Excavation work in progress at the Mahram Bilqis site in Marib.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

The site, once populated by fierce tribal communities, had been explored by very few people before Phillips. They included the French pharmacist Thomas Arnaud, in 1843; Joseph Halevy, also from France, in 1870 (he had to carry out the work in disguise); Eduard Glaser of Austria, in 1888 and Ahmed Fakhry of Egypt, in 1947. But half a century after Phillips, Merilyn Hodgson and her team, which included American, French-American, Canadian, Yemeni, British, German, Dutch, Australian and Palestinian archaeologists, had to start virtually from scratch; the temple was buried in sand. In spite of four campaigns the team has not yet reached the level to which the temple had been uncovered 50 years ago.

What was the link between the temple and the Queen? While there is no concrete proof of her having existed, it is believed that she lived around 960-920 B.C. The visit of the Queen of Sheba (or Saba) to Jerusalem is briefly narrated in the Old Testament (1 Kings, 10 and 2 Chronicles, 9). The Bible says that she arrived with camels bearing spices, gold and precious stones. Her objective was to test King Solomon and find out if he was really as wise as he was reputed to be. Once she was convinced that he was, she "gave the King one hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store and precious stones," and "King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked." The Gospel according to Matthew refers to Christ having made a reference to the Queen of the South, a virtuous woman who sought Solomon's wisdom.

The meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. From a 1452 fresco.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

In the Koran (surat 27), it is recorded that a messenger bird reported to Solomon that it had found the Queen "and her people worshipping the sun instead of Allah." She had returned a present he had sent. The King sent the Queen a message threatening to attack Saba. Following this the Queen visited him. She was so impressed that she said: "O my Lord! I have indeed wronged my soul. I do now submit, with Solomon, to the Lord of the Worlds."

No archaeological proof exists to support the legend of Sheba. According to Professor Abdu Ghaleb, the Yemeni deputy of the field director of the AFSM, "the story of the Queen of Saba and her visit reflects historical facts. There is no reason to think that the Queen did not exist. She lived in Marib and worshipped at Mahram Bilqis, probably around the 10th century B.C." Dr. Bill Glanzman, the AFSM's field director and Professor at the University of Calgary, Canada, admits that "there is nothing yet, no direct evidence whatsoever of the existence of the Queen of Sheba." However, he adds: "I said nothing yet..."

Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, president of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, beside a limestone altar decorated with 67 ibex heads that was found in 2001.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

In Arab folklore Sheba is Bilqis. The Greeks call her the Black Minerva. In Egyptian folklore she is Makeda, the Queen of Ethiopia, who returned from Jerusalem and gave birth to Solomon's son Menelik, who founded the Negus dynasty of Ethiopia. (The last ruler of the dynasty was Emperor Haile Selassie, who died in 1975.) Ethiopia was one of the many foreign powers that invaded Saba, the oldest known kingdom in southern Arabia. A royal chronicler has recorded that one of the Ethiopian invader kings had built a church in Marib in the 6th century A.D.

Hodgson's excavations have uncovered evidence for the existence of such a church - a Maltese cross on a small capital of a colonnade. This is proof that a later faith reused materials found at the temple site. No trace of a mosque has been found yet, but this is hardly surprising as the temple was probably in use until the 6th century.

Stones from the Mahram Bilqis temple collected by the AFSM archaeologists for documentation and possible reconstruction of the sanctuary.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

The archaeologists hope to find an artefact or an inscription that mentions a gift from the King of Jerusalem to the Queen of Sheba. They believe that apart from Jerusalem, a holy city for the three monotheist religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, such an inscription can be found only in Marib. And, according to them, the only two possible locations are the old city, which is yet to be excavated, and Mahram Bilqis.

The reasoning seems indisputable. If the Queen of Sheba or Bilqis existed, she would certainly have come to Marib and participated in ceremonies at Mahram Bilqis, the biggest temple and an important centre of pilgrimage of the time. People came or were brought from far away to pray and even to be buried there.

Today, the broad outline of the temple can be seen, with a massive wall that surrounds the inner sanctuary or the 'holy of holies'. Only around 4 metres of this over-5,000 square metre, kidney-shaped enclosure is now exposed. Glanzman calculates that the wall, which is over 257 m long on the exterior and 3.5 m thick, must have been at least 16 m high when it was built. It was built in two stages, as the change in masonry style shows; the change occurred around 500 B.C. The wall is made of limestone, packed with basalt from a nearby volcanic outcrop called Jabal Hamm.

A bronze plaque discovered in 2001 by the AFSM, the text and other content components deciphered by Mohammed Maraqten, the Palestinian epigraphist of the mission.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

Together with the surrounding buildings, the enclosure and the hall form possibly the region's largest known sanctuary built before the advent of Islam. The hall once had 32 pillars, each about 4.25 m tall, surrounding its large open courtyard. They once supported a roof over a cloister-like gallery. Eight massive columns, at least 7.65 m high, beyond the front of the hall, tower over the site. The engineering skills required to erect these monoliths, each weighing more than 10 tonnes, is as impressive as that involved in the construction of monuments such as the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Acropolis in Athens.

The four rounds of AFSM excavations uncovered fragments of pottery that had been used to fill the walls. Once an object was brought into the inner sanctuary, it could not be thrown away; it had to be reused for a new building. The earliest pottery fragments that the team recovered as it excavated the wall, date between 1500 B.C. and 1200 B.C., which make them older than any of the inscriptions found at the site.

The AFSM team's last expedition was in May 2001. In view of the frequent tribal rebellions, the 40-member team was escorted to the site by armed guards. The workers, too, came armed with Kalashnikov rifles.

Glanzman coordinated the archaeological work, aided by Abdu Ghaleb, while Merilyn Hodgson involved herself in every aspect of the operation, from helping uncover artefacts to working on the logistics.

An archaeologist uncovering an alabaster panel with the ibex sculpted on it.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

Professor Brian Moorman and his sub-surface team from the University of Calgary use a ground-penetrating radar, a magnetometer and electromagnetic instruments to probe the layers of sand for possible walls, monuments and metallic artefacts. Their studies have shown that the sanctuary and its 'outbuilding' were much larger than the 6,000 sq m area that is fenced today.

Perhaps the most beautiful artefact the AFSM team has uncovered is a 2,000-year-old sculpture of a woman's head, carved from translucent alabaster. The face has been preserved perfectly. It originally adorned a tomb stela (an upright stone slab with inscriptions, typically used as a gravestone). It had been recycled and used either to redecorate a new wall composed almost entirely of recycled material, or as a masonry block within the old wall.

Another important discovery was the bronze statuette of a woman. It was found in a room of a large structure, which had been built against the wall of the Peristyle Hall, probably within the first three centuries when the sanctuary was still in use. The statuette was probably dedicated to Almaqah, the god of the Sabeans. An alabaster panel with an ibex on it was also found. The ibex symbolised several gods including Almaqah. The team also uncovered a large limestone altar adorned with 67 heads of ibex, engraved with a dedicatory inscription with recesses on top, where a bronze horse once stood.

The Sabean pantheon was rich in tutelary gods, with personal deities for everyone. The supreme god was Athtar, who was probably the equivalent of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Almaqah, however, was the main god worshipped by the Sabeans. Symbolised first by a bull and then by an ibex, he was also associated with a crescent, which led certain archaeologists to call him the moon god and therefore name Mahram Bilqis the moon temple.

At the Mahram Bilqis site during Wendell Phillips' excavation campaign of 1951-1952.-MARC DEVILLE/GAMMA

It is difficult to date the origins of the Sabean kingdom, where an agricultural community lived perhaps as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. Southern Arabia apparently went through a major change between 1500 and 1200 B.C. when the farming communities grouped themselves into small confederations under the leadership of mukkaribs (confederators). This was the title that preceded malik (king), which appeared around 500-600 B.C.

Between the 2nd and 6th century A.D., Marib forced political instability in the southern Arabian kingdoms. That led to a decadence that peaked around 580 B.C. with the collapse of the great dam in Marib, which devastated the rich alluvial oasis. The sands eventually covered a now-condemned civilisation.

However, it may be decades before any proof of Sheba's existence is unearthed from the sand that has piled up for more than a thousand years. The international crisis in Afghanistan has affected Yemen, where the bin Laden family has its roots.

Merilyn Hodgson is awaiting clearance to resume her work. She remains optimistic and says that she expects the official green light soon.

Gamma