The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 6th March 2013

From Yemen to Yeha and Beyond: In Search of the Queen of Sheba in Ethiopia

Given by - Louise Schofield

Reviewed by - Leila Ingrams

Louise Schofield is an archaeologist and a former curator at the British Museum. More recently she has become director of the Tigray Trust. Louise also heads a British excavation project in the Gheralta area in northern Ethiopia, a work which may solve the mystery of where the fabled gold mines of the Queen of Sheba lie, and which may even shed more light on the history of the Queen herself.

Tradition has it that the Queen of Sheba, also known as Bilqis in Yemen and as Makeda in Ethiopia, heard of the great wisdom of King Solomon in Jerusalem and journeyed there to meet him. We were shown magnificent paintings of the Queen's encounter with Solomon which included the painting by the artist Sir Edward John Poynter in 1890, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, an altarpiece, and more. Louise pointed out that this famous story is found in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The Qur'an and the Bible describe her visit to King Solomon: she arrived with a great retinue, camels bearing spices, and much gold and precious stones. She asked him many questions which the King answered. According to the Kebra Negast (the Glory of Kings), Solomon wooed the Queen, who had a son with the King: Menelik, the founder of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty. It is also believed that the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia when Menelik returned to Aksum after visiting his father. One holy monk is elected and charged with its care and preservation in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Aksum.

Louise also talked of the land of Saba in modern Yemen, showing photographs of its capital Marib, and of the temple of Mahram Bilqis, which is said to date from the tenth century BC. She also talked about the Great Dam which dates back to about the 8th century BC and which is reported to have suffered a major breach in the 2nd century BC. As evidence of the sophistication of the Sabean civilisation, we were shown striking images of objects found in these areas, amongst which were: an alabaster head of a woman with shoulder-length hair and eyes made of blue glass; an ibex frieze; and a bust with the right hand raised, dated to the first century AD.

For Louise, excavations in Ethiopia confirm that Yemen was part of the Kingdom of Aksum, and that notable Sabean sites exist in Ethiopia. The renowned pre-Christian temple of Yeha, north east of Adwa, is one of the finest examples. As we saw in the photographs much of the building is still extant and is composed of calcified sandstone, large blocks of stone held together without mortar and which were perhaps pulled by elephants to the site of the temple. Yemeni merchants traded with the Aksumites, whose principal port was Adulis, or Adole, in the Bay of Zula. Louise praised the archaeologists of the German Archaeological Institute in Yeha for all the work they have done, and are doing, on the temple and surrounding area. It seems very likely that our understanding of this era will soon be enhanced by their discoveries and already the work here, and in other locations in Tigray, suggest that the archaeological record will soon move back in time and closer to the date of the encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

During excavations on the Gheralta Mountains Louise and her team found parts of columns and finely carved stone channels from a buried temple which appeared to be dedicated to the moon god, the main deity of the land of Saba. A possible victory in a battle nearby was revealed where Louise excavated ancient bones. There was a remarkable photograph of a toppled-over stelae, 20 feet tall and carved with the sun and crescent moon which denote the land of Saba, with our speaker lying beneath it! She was determined to see the underside of this enormous structure which could have crushed her. She wriggled under it where there was a space, but was wary of a 9 foot cobra she was warned lived here. Louise came face to face with an illuminating inscription in the Sabean language. Further tantalising evidence of what new information may soon come to light. Local people have panned for gold in the river for a very long time, but were unaware of the ancient gold mine that Louise and her team believe to have found, with its shaft buried some 4 feet down, hidden in a hill in the Gheralta area within Makeda's former territory - the Kingdom of Sheba.

Louise left her audience intrigued to know more and we must hope that she can find time to speak to us again in the future to keep us informed as the archaeology yields up more of the truth behind the legend of the Queen of Sheba. With many thanks to Louise for her excellent illustrated talk on this captivating and historically fascinating subject which will surely always attract large audiences such as this one that attended at SOAS. We would like to wish her and her team every success in their important future work on this subject and also with the charity work for the Tigray Trust to help the people of the area.

First Published in News File Summer 2013

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