“Arabia Felix,” the mysterious land — death-march of 10,000 Romans — number one exporter of spices — first news of Marib — Halevy and Glaser have a dangerous adventure — when the great dam burst — American expedition to Yemen — the temple of the moon in Sheba — camels-the new long distance transport — export talks with Solomon.
“And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions at Jerusalem, with a very great company, and camels that bare spices, and gold in abundance and precious stones” (2 Chron. 9:1). For thousands of years richly laden caravans have made their way from “fortunate Arabia” to the north. They were well-known in Egypt, in Greece and in the Roman Empire. With them came tales of fabulous cities, of tombs filled with gold, tales which persisted through the centuries. The Roman Emperor Augustus determined to find out the truth about what camel drivers continually extolled in their remote country. He instructed Aelius Callus to fit out a military expedition and to satisfy himself on the spot as to the truth of these incredible tales about south Arabia. With an army of 10,000 Roman soldiers Gallus marched south from Egypt and proceeded along the desolate shores of the Red Sea. Marib, the legendary capital city, was his goal. But he was never to reach it. For in the pitiless heat of the desert, after endless clashes with wild tribes, decimated by treacherous diseases, his army went to pieces. The few survivors who reached their native land again had no reliable factual details to add to the legendary stories of “Arabia Felix.”
“In fortunate Arabia,” writes Dionysius the Greek in A.D. 90, “you can always smell the sweet perfume of marvellous spices, whether it be incense or wonderful myrrh. Its inhabitants have great flocks of sheep in the meadows, and birds fly in from distant isles bringing leaves of pure cinnamon.”
South Arabia was even in the ancient world export country Number One for spices and it is still so today. Yet it seemed to be shrouded in dark mystery. No man had ever seen it with his own eyes. “Arabia Felix” remained a book with seven seals. The first man in recent times to embark upon this dangerous adventure was Carsten Niebuhr, a German, who led a Danish expedition to south Arabia in the 18th century. Even he only got as far as Sana. He was still 60 miles from the ruined city of Marib when he had to turn back.
A Frenchman, J. Halevy, and an Austrian, Dr. Eduard Glaser, were the first white men actually to reach this ancient goal about a century ago. Since no foreigner, far less a European, was allowed to cross the frontier of the Yemen, and no permit could be obtained, Halevy and Glaser embarked on an enterprise which might have cost them their lives. They chartered a sailing boat and landed secretly in the Gulf of Aden disguised as Orientals. After an arduous journey of over 200 miles through parched and desolate mountain country they eventually reached Marib. Greatly impressed by what they saw they threw caution to the winds and clambered around the ruins.
Suspicious natives came towards them. The two scholars knew that it would cost them their lives if their disguise was discovered and took to their heels. At last after many adventures they reached Aden by a circuitous route. However they had been able to smuggle out copies and rubbings of inscriptions, concealed under their burnous, on the strength of which they were able to prove that Marib really existed.
Travelling merchants likewise brought inscriptions with them later on. Up to the present day their number reaches the sizeable total of 4,000. Scholars have examined and sifted the material. The script is alphabetic and therefore originated in Palestine. Dedicatory inscriptions give us information about gods, tribes and cities of a million inhabitants. And the names of four countries — “The Spice Kingdoms” — which are mentioned are: Minaea, Kataban, Hadhramaut and — Sheba.
The kingdom of Minaea lay in the northern part of Yemen and is referred up to the 12th century B.C. Writings of the 9th century B.C. mention its southern neighbour, the land of the Shebans. Assyrian documents of the 8th century B.C. likewise speak of Sheba and of close trade relations with this country whose kings were called “Mukarrib,” “priest-princes.”
Gradually, with the discovery of documentary evidence, this fairy-tale country of Sheba began to take definite shape.
A gigantic dam blocked the river Adhanat in Sheba, collecting the rainfall from a wide area. The water was then led off in canals for irrigation purposes, which was what gave the land its fertility. Remains of this technical marvel in the shape of walls over 60 feet high still defy the sand-dunes of the desert. Just as Holland is in modern times the Land of Tulips, so Sheba was then the Land of Spices, one vast fairy-like scented garden of the costliest spices in the world. In the midst of it lay the capital, which was called Marib. For 1,500 years this garden of spices bloomed around Marib. That was until 542 B.C. — then the dam burst. The importunate desert crept over the fertile lands and destroyed them. “The people of Sheba,” says the Koran, “had beautiful gardens in which the most costly fruits ripened.” But then the people turned their backs upon God, wherefore he punished them by causing the dam to burst. Thereafter nothing but bitter fruit grew in the gardens of Sheba.
In 1928 the German scholars Carl Rathjens and H. von Wissmann uncovered the site of a temple near Sana which had been first seen by their countryman Niebuhr. It was a significant start but almost another quarter of a century was to elapse before the greatest team of experts so far set out on an expedition at the end of 1951 to solve the archaeological riddle of Sheba. “The American Foundation for the Study of Man” provided the expedition with unusually large financial resources. The organiser of the enterprise was an extremely versatile palaeontologist from the University of California, Wendell Phillips, then only twenty-nine years old. After long drawn-out negotiations they succeeded in getting permission from King Imam Achmed to excavate at Marib. Marib lies at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula about 6,000 feet up on the eastern spurs of the mountain range that skirts the Red Sea. The archaeologists started with high expectations.
A long column of jeeps and trucks rolled northwards in a cloud of dust through barren mountain country with neither roads nor paths. Suddenly like a phantom out of the shimmering yellow sand dunes there appeared before them massive ruins and columns — “Haram Bilqis.” It was the ancient Ilumquh temple of Awwarn, a centre of worship wrapped in legend, in the neighbourhood of Marib, the capital of the old Arabian kingdom of Sheba. Although partly covered by sand dunes as high as houses the lines of this oval-shaped temple over 300 feet long were clearly recognisable. A cursory examination of the sanctuary reveals a circular shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe ruins in Rhodesia where at one time the search for the Biblical Ophir was made. Closer investigation has shown, however, that the conformities are purely superficial. Zimbabwe, moreover, which was built between the 11th and the 15th centuries A.D., is around two thousand years younger than the old moon god sanctuary at Marib.
According to an inscription on the wall, Ilumquh, god of the moon, was worshipped in “Haram Bilqis.” Masses of sand covered the temple which stood in the middle of the oval. Digging therefore began on the entrance to the great circle. The archaeologists wanted to try to approach the temple gradually from that point.
Under a boiling sun a gatehouse of surprising splendour and beauty was exposed amid understandable excitement. Wide steps covered with bronze led inside. The inner court was surrounded by a pillared hall. Stone columns 15 feet high once bore a roof which shielded it from the sun. Flanked by pillars on each side the processional way led from this point to the sanctuary of the moon god. An unusual ornamental fixture caused astonishment. From a height of 15 feet glittering fountains of water must in those days have played into this quiet courtyard. As it descended the water was caught in a narrow channel which then wound its way through the whole pillared court.
What must have been the feelings of pilgrims who made their way past these splashing sparkling fountains, fanned by the drowsy fragrance of incense and myrrh, through the pillared courts of this most marvellous edifice in old Arabia.
The digging went steadily forward until they were within a few yards of the temple. The archaeologists could see in front of them the wonderful temple gate, flanked by two slender columns — but at this point the excavation had to be precipitately abandoned. The chicanery of the governor of Marib which had been going on for weeks had now reached a dangerous point and the members of the expedition were no longer sure of their safety. They had to rise and run, leaving everything behind them. Fortunately they had some photographs among the few things they had been able to salvage on their hasty escape to Yemen.
Nearby in the Hadhramaut three digs were carried out in the following few years which were crowned with more success.
Soon after the experts had begun to evaluate the results of these four brief and somewhat dramatic expeditions, Professor W. F. Albright could say: “They are in process of revolutionising our knowledge of Southern Arabia's cultural history and chronology. Up to now the results to hand demonstrate the political and cultural primacy of Sheba in the first centuries after 1000 B.C.”
Just as King Solomon's ships made long sea voyages through the Red Sea to Arabia and Africa, so long distance travel began on the Red Sea coast route through the southern Sea of Sand. The new form of transport called, not unjustly, “Ships of the Desert,” consisted of camels. They were able to compass distances which were hitherto reckoned impossible. An unsuspected development both in trade and transport through these vast desolate territories took place about 1000 B.C. thanks to the taming and training of these desert animals. South Arabia, which had for so long been almost as far away as the clouds, was suddenly brought into the Mediterranean world and into closer contact with the other kingdoms of the Old World. Just as with the introduction of stratosphere aircraft America was suddenly brought closer to Europe in transatlantic services, so was it also, even if on a different scale, with south Arabia and the Old World.
Previously it was by the employment of donkeys, plodding endlessly and painfully month after month, each short day's journey governed by the distance from water hole to water hole, and always in danger of attack, that the treasures of Arabia trickled northwards along the ancient Incense Road through 1,250 miles off desert. With the arrival of the new type of long-distance transport, however, a wide range of goods began to flow out of “fortunate Arabia.” The new method was quicker, almost independent of water holes and therefore not tied to the old traffic routes which zig-zagged from well to well. It had also a greater capacity. The camel could carry many times the burden which an ass could carry.
The terminus of the Incense Road was Israel. Solomon's official agents, the “king's merchants,” took delivery of the costly wares. It also depended on them whether the caravans would be allowed to proceed on their journey through Solomon's kingdom to Egypt, Phoenicia and Syria.
No wonder that “the fame of Solomon” came to the knowledge of the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1). Bearing all this in mind, if we read carefully the tenth chapter of the First Book of Kings, we shall think of it no longer in terms of a “pious story” or of the Queen of Sheba as a character in a fairy tale. On the contrary the whole passage rings true and is completely intelligible. “And she [i.e., the Queen of Sheba] came to Jerusalem... and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart” (1 Kings 10:2). The queen of Sheba had assuredly quite a number of things she wanted to talk about. The head of a state whose chief export trade could only be with and through Israel, and that for unavoidable geographical reasons, would certainly have plenty to discuss with the king of that country. We shall nowadays describe the affair more concretely as trade talks and should send experts minus crowns to other countries for discussions. They too would carry with them in their diplomatic bags presents which would show the respect due to the head of the state, like the queen of Sheba.
Admittedly, however vividly we are able to imagine all this, and however colourfully popular Oriental tradition embellishes the relationship between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — throughout the East they became one of the “classical” pairs of lovers of popular tradition — the Queen of Sheba nevertheless retained a certain majestic distance.
It is a fact that popular tradition once more does indeed connect the Sheban Awwam temple at Marib with this “queen,” but there is no doubt that this temple does not date from the time of Solomon (10th century B.C.). It was probably not built until the 8th or even the 7th century B.C. and consequently is considerably more recent than Solomon. But there are other considerations — although women such as Queen Hatshepsut and Queen Tewosre had ruled in Ancient Egypt centuries before Solomon, any non-Biblical indication of a scientifically reliable nature of a ruling princess during the time of Solomon has been denied us in southern Arabia. The Queen of Sheba, to whom we seemed already to have drawn so near, thus once again becomes inaccessible.