Saturday, 20 August 2011

Yemen - the Queen of Sheba and the women of Yemen

One of the things people from Yemen seem to be quite proud of is the country's claim to be the birthplace of the Queen of Sheba.  Sheba is also claimed by the Ethiopians, who called her Makeda and I'm beginning to see a pattern of cultural exchange that has blurred the edges of Yemeni, Ethiopian, Eritrean  and Somali culture.

Archaeological evidence from Ma'rib, a town in the desert just east of Sana'a, is offered as proof of the existence of Sheba.  Whether or not Sheba was a real personage hardly seems to be the point - it's what she symbolised that has become so important, not only to the Yemenis, but to the early Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Sheba and King Solomon

Solomon and Sheba by Piero della Francesca
Just as there is a paucity of historical evidence of the Queen of Sheba's existence, I've also found that there are very few interpretations (in the Western world) of the Queen of Sheba's life - the ones that do exist relate to her visit to Solomon, the King of Israel.  Most accounts tell how the Queen of Sheba had heard of Solomon's great wisdom and faith, so she travelled all the way to Israel to see his kingdom with her own eyes.  She has been depicted as being wealthy beyond belief and brought gifts of gold, spices and jewels which, I'm sure, made an impression on Solomon and his subjects.

As part of my research, I've read Kings 10:10, the paragraph in the Bible that relates to Solomon and Sheba.  It's an incredibly short version of the story and I can't help wondering what was left unsaid.  Other accounts have linked Solomon and Sheba romantically, but the Bible, rather enigmatically, merely states that 'King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba everything she asked for'.

The Hollywood movie

Of course, the Hollywood version, King Vidor's 1959 epic, Solomon and Sheba is a lot more exciting.  Not only does Sheba (played by the Italian beauty, Gina Lollobrigada) seduce King Solomon (played by Yul Brynner, who was born in Vladivostok), but she is also partly responsible for the fall of Solomon's kingdom and the Hebrew God's destruction of Solomon's temple, when he allows Sheba and her cortege to hold a festival in honour of the Sheban love god, Ragan.

It's a great movie and I really enjoyed watching it.  I'm posting the link to a YouTube video, which shows one of the movies' most famous scenes, ie. the pagan orgy in honour of Ragan.  Gina Lollobrigada is fantastic and the scene reminded me of a Lady Gaga video.  Whilst Lady Gaga might only raise a few eyebrows in our modern times, Lollobrigada's dance in this scene caused quite a stir in late 1950's America!

Claude Lorrain's Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba
The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Also as part of my research for this blog, I went to see Claude Lorrain's 1648 painting The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, which hangs in the National Gallery, here in London.  The Sheban port, as depicted by Lorrain, looks nothing like the photos and images I've seen of Yemen, but Lorrain's approach to this story was innovative, not only because of the way he used light in the painting, but also because of the subject matter - most artists and writers have only been concerned with Sheba's visit to Israel, whereas Claude chose to focus on her departure from Sheba, reflecting his interest in the theme of voluntary exile. 

The arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Handel's oratorio, Solomon, based on biblical stories about the wise king, was first performed at the Theatre Royal (now known as the Royal Opera House) in Covent Garden, London  on the 17th of March 1749.  The sinfonia from Solomon is better known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and is a piece of music I have loved for many years.  I'm posting a video from YouTube below, so you can enjoy this piece of music firsthand (if you're not already familiar with it).

Soft diplomacy or cultural subjugation

I've been thinking a lot about Sheba's story and how it can be interpreted.  The optimist in me sees the story of Solomon and Sheba as one of the first portrayals of a diplomatic mission - one that wasn't based on war and conquest, but the exchange of gifts and cultural ideas.  In the biblical version of this story, Sheba leaves Israel peacefully and you get the impression that both Sheba and Israel have been enriched by this cultural contact.

I get the impression that, for many Yemenis, Sheba represents the 'glory days' of Yemen, when it was a land rich beyond any one's wildest dreams.  There are echoes of Yemeni history in the story of Sheba and, I think she is more a symbol of fertility and bountiful harvests, than an actual person.  Like a fallen queen, Yemen in more modern times has been culturally subjugated to the influences of a wider world.  Early Christians interpreted this story as the subjugation of pagan beliefs by monotheism.  For modern Yemenis, Sheba symbolises a country that is passive, female and exploited. 

Women in Yemeni society

Yemeni woman by localsurfer
The position of women in Yemeni society leaves a lot to be desired.  According to the Washington-based NGO, Freedom House Yemeni women have limited access to judicial institutions and the majority of law makers are men.  In the tribes, there does seem to be a strong role for women, but this varies from region to region and, in general, Yemeni women are discriminated against under the law.  For example, women in Yemen need a letter of approval from their 'guardian', before they can marry a non-Yemeni.  Bizarrely, Yemeni law considers the testimony of two women to be equal to that of one man.

There are no laws to protect women from sexual harassment at work - that is, if a woman can find a job, literacy levels amongst Yemeni women are incredibly low - according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 61.6% of women in Yemen are illiterate, which is double the illiteracy rate for men.  I'm not quite sure where the Queen of Sheba would fit in to modern-day Yemen! 

Image credits:

The image of Piero della Francesca's painting Legend of the True Cross - the Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon hangs in the Basilica de San Francesco which is Arezzo, in Italy.  This image is copyright-free, as it's in the public domain

The image of Claude Lorrain's Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba is also in the public domain.

The image of the young Yemeni woman was published on Flickr by localsurfer who is from Barnstaple in North Devon.  You can see more of his images on his website.  Also, it's worth having a look at the information he's written about this image, to get an idea of what life is like for women in Yemen.  Thanks localsurfer for sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License. 


Mrs Cavallo said...

So fascinating to read about such a strong and independent woman, who may or may not have existed, and who could have made that wonderful journey to visit Israel. It seems hard to imagine such a thing could happen thousands of years ago. Especially when you look at the politics in the region today.

Maukee75 said...

Indeed, it is fascinating that a woman would hold such a prominent place in Yemen's 'history'. Often these female symbols (like Boudicca in England) represent the end of paganism and a suppression of the female deity. I'm sure there are Shebas in many world cultures and that's why her story resonates so well, even with a modern audience.