giovedì 10 aprile 2014

The Queen of Sheba: Exotic romance and legend

Photo: Fatima Abbadi
Queen of Sheba is probably the second most famous female character in Ancient history after the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, who died with the aid of a serpent.. Very little is known about her but in movies she was either referred as Balqis, or simply as Sheba. The Queen was queen of the ancient kingdom of Sheba and is referred to in Yemenite and Ethiopian history.

The legendary Queen of Sheba was always seen in history as an exotic and mysterious woman of power and immortalized in the world's great religious works, among them the Bible and the Quran. She also appears throughout in history in many Persian and Turkish paintings same as in many medieval Christian mystical works, where she is viewed as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom and a foreteller of the cult of the Holy Cross. In Africa and Arabia her tale is still told to this day and, indeed, her tale has been told and retold in many lands for nearly 3,000 years. 

Ethiopian tradition:

Of all the stories of the Queen of Sheba, those of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa are those that probably retain the most resonance today with the people who tell them. The stories are immortalized in the Ethiopian
holy book - the Kebra Nagast - where we find accounts of the queen's hairy hoof, her trip to Solomon and her seduction. But these tales go further. Here, the queen returns to her capital, Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, and months later gives birth to Solomon's son, who is named Menelik, meaning 'Son of the Wise'.

The story goes that years later Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to see his father, who greeted him with joy and invited him to remain there to rule after his death. But Menelik refused and decided to return home. Under cover of darkness he left the city - taking with him its most precious relic, the Ark of the Covenant. He took it back to Aksum, where it still resides today, in a specially built treasury in the courtyard of St Mary's Church.

The importance of the queen, the Ark of the Covenant and the Kebra Nagast in Ethiopian history cannot be overstated. Through their reading of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians see their country as God's chosen country, the final resting place that he chose for the Ark - and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there. Thus, Sheba is the mother of their nation, and the kings of the land have divine right to rule because they are directly descended from her. Emperor Haile Selassie even had that fact enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955.

Haile Selassie was not, however, the first Emperor to publicly declare the importance of the Kebra Nagast. London's National Archives contain letters dating from 1872, written by Prince Kasa (later King John IV) of Ethiopia to Queen Victoria, in which he writes (translated):

There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the shums (governors), churches and provinces are in this book. I pray you will find out who has got this book and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.

On Victoria's permit, the book was returned to Ethiopia, and it is now kept in Raguel Church in Addis Ababa, where a front page inscription explains its history.
Ultimately though, there is no primary evidence, archaeological or textual, for the queen in Ethiopia. The impressive ruins at Aksum are a thousand years too late for a queen contemporary with Solomon - at least on his traditional dating to the tenth century BC. And the great Sabaean kingdom in southern Arabia, for which we do have textual evidence, lists names of ruling kings at the time when Sheba is supposed to have sat on the throne.

It is only after the second half of the nineteenth century with the of period remarkable for archaeological researches and discoveries, especially by English and French expeditions in Egypt and the Middle East that replaced Greece and Italy as the focus of curiosity, that Queen of Sheba became popular in Europe and contextualized further more through ther orientalist narratives in literature, music and visual art.


Perhaps the most famous depiction of the Queen of Sheba is 'The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King lion throne' closely follows the detailed description given in the Bible (1 Kings 10:18-20), though the twelve golden lions were further inspired by a colossal stone lion that Layard discovered in 1849 on one side of the doorway into the Temple of Ishtar in Nimrud (now in the British Museum, Room 6: Assyrian sculpture).

Solomon' by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), whose stunning oil painting is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The watercolor shown here is one of several studies that Poynter made in preparation for the composition. Trained in Paris under Gleyre,  like many of his contemporaries, Poynter was strongly influenced by the sensational archaeological discoveries of Assyrian palaces in northern Iraq made by the archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894). The magnificent '

Hollywood, too, has fallen under her spell, releasing its own polished epic version of her story in many numerous movies. The Queen of Sheba (1921) was the first silent film produced by Fox studios about the story of the ill-fated romance between Solomon, King of Israel, and the Queen of Sheba. Written and directed by J. Gordon Edwards, it starred Betty Blythe as the Queen and Fritz Leiber, Sr. as King Solomon. The film is well known amongst silent film buffs for the risqué costumes worn by Blythe, as evidenced by several surviving stills taken during the production. This was a rarity in mainstream Hollywood films at the time. Only a short fragment of the film survives.


“The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, sinfonia for two oboes and strings is one of  George Frideric Handel masterpieces that premiered in London on March 17, 1749, as the first scene of Act III in the oratorio Solomon. One of the last of Handel’s many oratorios, Solomon is rarely performed in its entirety, but Handel’s bright and lively “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” interlude is a widely appreciated processional set piece. It often was (and it continues to be) played during wedding ceremonies. A noted public performance of the piece occurred during the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 'Solomon' is partly religious, and partly secular, being somewhat graphic in its celebrations of sexual love. It embraces the man at the pinnacle of his powers and popularity, also emphasizing his wisdom, but hinting that his sexual proclivities may be his undoing. Yet in the end, with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba,it is pure choral spectacle. The Queen speaking of how much she has learned and will never forget after her stay with the great ruler.

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