Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen

Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen

edited by St John Simpson

The British Museum Press, 2002. Pp. 224. 260 colour and 50 b/w photographs. Notes. Index. Bibliog. Pb. £24. 99. ISBN 0-7141-1151-1.

Some five years ago, members of the British- Yemeni Society enjoyed the privilege of visiting the British Museum’s (unexhibited) reserve collection of South Arabian antiquities. Some of these are now at last, on display in the ‘Queen of Sheba’ exhibition which opened at the Museum on 9 June 2002.

This beautifully illustrated, finely printed publication from the British Museum Press is more than a just a catalogue of exhibits: it contains twelve essays by leading scholars from Britain, the USA, Canada and Europe on subjects ranging from ‘The Queen of Sheba in Western Popular Culture’ (Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones); ‘Saba and the Sabaeans’ (Christian Robin); ‘Kings, Kingdoms and Chronology’ (Robert Hoyland); ‘Trade, Incense and Perfume’ (Nigel Groom) to ‘Arts, Crafts and Industries’ (William Glanzman); ‘Architecture’ (Francois Breton); and ‘Death and Funerary Practices’ (Burkhard Vogt).

With its wealth of scholarship, historical background and descriptive detail, this is a work to savour between visits to the exhibition; it will add greatly to the visitor’s appreciation of what is on display: for example new archaeological discoveries (bronze objects from Jebel al-Lawdh in Ibb province unearthed in 1996) as well many items in the British Museum and private collections never previously exhibited in this country, including an exceptional bronze head of a male figure presented by Imam Yahya as a coronation gift to King George VI in 1936 (p. 128).

Anomalies of one kind or another are almost bound to occur in a work of this scope. But it is hard to understand why Colonel (later Brigadier-General Sir William) Coghlan, British Resident in Aden between 1854 and 1863 and a major donor to the British Museum’s collection, should be referred to throughout as ‘Brigadier-Colonel’, a rank which never existed in the British Army. The Museum’s registration note at the top of the bronze plaque from Shabwa illustrated at Fig. 52 on p. 154, clearly and correctly identifies Coghlan as ‘Colonel’. Meanwhile, some readers may flinch at the mutation of time-honoured ‘Qana’ (Husn al-Ghurab) — the transliteration still espoused by Professor de Maigret in his Arabia Felix: An Exploration of the Archaeological History of Yemen (2002) — into ‘Qani". It may also be worth mentioning that the highland village pictured at Fig. 34 on p. 103, in Tony Wilkinson’s article on ‘Agriculture and the Countryside’, is not near Dhamar’ but north-west of Sana’a, between Tawila and Shibam; a photograph of the same village (taken by Mary Morgan) was published in the Journal in July 2000. But these are very minor points, and this finely produced ‘catalogue’ does more than justice to a major and memorable cultural event.

John Shipman

Author: 
St John Simpson