According to the Bible, the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon's Palace bearing fabulous gifts, including one of the world's most valued substances--frankincense. She is mentioned only briefly in the Bible before she and her entourage disappear back into the desert from which they came. Was this Queen real? If so, who was she? Host Josh Bernstein digs deep in Ethiopia, legendary home of the Queen, follows the ancient incense trail, and ends up in Yemen, while attempting to discover her mystery and legacy.
The Queen of Sheba: "I briefly explored the world of the Queen of Sheba in the first season of DFT, on the 'Quest for King Solomon's Gold' show. It was obvious to me then that the people of Ethiopia have a strong connection with the Queen, but the ancient land of Ethiopia was historically called 'Afar'--not Sheba. So I wasn't sure if she ruled from there or someplace nearby. Well, this journey is kind of a continuation of that quest, only this time, I'll be looking at a few new clues from the Bible."
Sheba, Saba, Seva: "In Hebrew, words can be broken down into their roots--called a 'shoresh.' That root consists of primarily consonants, as vowels are often added in Hebrew through the use of dots and dashes below or above the letters themselves. Long story short, my point is that the same word can often be pronounced several different ways. So the root letters of S, V, and H can be pronounced Sevah, Sebah, Shevah, Shebah, Shivah, Shibah, and so on. And sometimes, those different pronunciations mean different things, opening the Bible up to all kinds of interpretations. But here, at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with Dr. Doug Gropp, I'm learning that the many Biblical references to the Queen of Sheba and the land of Seva can be combined. And they might point to a possible land for her Queendom."
"Even more interesting, it seems that frankincense--the almost priceless gift she brought to King Solomon--comes from only two areas: the Horn of Africa and the southern area of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Well, putting this all together, it looks like my best place to visit would be either Ethiopia or perhaps Yemen. Since I've already got a friend in Ethiopia--and I know they have a proud association with the Queen of Sheba--that's my first choice to begin the journey."
Lalibela: "The town of Lalibela is also called 'The New Jerusalem.' Interesting. A connection, perhaps, to King David and King Solomon's Jerusalem...? Helping me make my way around the 13 beautiful churches here is Asnake Wubete, a student of history at the Addis Ababa University. He explains to me that Lalibela was built by King Lalibela around 1200 A.D. This place was the result of a dream he had--a vision of building a holy place in Ethiopia very much like Jerusalem in Israel. The product of his vision and passion is astonishing--these churches were not 'built' but rather carved from the solid rock. Everything I see here--the doors, windows, walls, interior spaces--ALL of it had to be visualized within the surrounding bedrock and then what WASN'T needed was removed. There's a reason why many call Lalibela the 8th Wonder of the World. However, as spectacular and holy as this site may be, it's over 2000 years too new to be associated with the Queen of Sheba, who supposedly lived around 900 B.C. Therefore, Asnake points me to another part of Ethiopia in the Tigray province."
Solomon's Trick: "The Bible tells us that the Queen of Sheba was so impressed with the stories she heard of King Solomon that she decided to pay him a visit in Jerusalem. Her caravan of riches was considerable, and her gifts of frankincense and other royal items should, no doubt, have pleased the King. But, as stated in the Bible and expounded upon in Ethiopian legend, the King was more interested in the Queen than in her gifts. Impressed by his wisdom, wealth and power, she asked that he please not force her to sleep with him. They made a deal: as long as she didn't take anything from him without his permission, he wouldn't 'take her' without her permission. This is where the Ethiopian legend gets interesting.... King Solomon then serves an incredibly spicy and salty meal and sends the Queen to bed without any water in her room. Apparently, all the water in the palace is removed save for one pitcher near his bed. Dying of thirst in the middle of the night, the Queen sees no option but to drink the water in that pitcher--without asking the permission of the apparently sleeping King. She thus breaks her promise and, agreeing to their arrangement, she sleeps with him. According to the legend, as a result of that evening the Queen later gives birth to the future King Menelik I. The Solomonic Dynasty--as well as the associated legends of the Ark of the Covenant--began in Ethiopia with Menelik."
Frankincense: "Heading through the Tigray province, my friend Misgana Genenew and I discuss the traditional role of frankincense. It's not to be underestimated. Frankincense, I'm told, is a big part of Ethiopian ritual: no frankincense = no church services. No church services = no life. To see how it's made, we visit the town of Shire and a frankincense factory. At first look, this appears to be a sweatshop--or what I imagine a sweatshop might look like. But Misgana assures me that this is NOT a sweatshop, but rather a family industry where the men harvest the incense in the field, and the women process it here at the factory. The kids are here not to work but just to spend time with their moms while they're working. And the process, I'm learning, is incredibly precise. First, the Boswelia tree is debarked with the incense resin on it. Then the larger flaws and bits of bark are removed from the hardened sap. This sap is refined more and more by the different stations until all that's left is pure frankincense, a yellowish, gummy resin that looks kind of like candy. The very best stuff is put in burlap sacks and taken to the market, a process that hasn't changed over thousands of years."
Yeha Temple: "Built between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago, the Yeha Temple of the Moon is certainly old enough to have been around during the Queen of Sheba's day. In fact, it was one of Ethiopia's first kingdoms and the place of rule for a powerful civilization called the 'Sabaeans.' Today, all that remains are some impressive walls and some oddly shaped inscriptions. Other parts of the ancient buildings--like some Ibex (antelope) heads--have been incorporated into the newer churches and buildings that have appeared on site over the years since. But the letters, I'm told, suggest a connection with the Sabaean kingdom of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Interesting, given the frankincense trail leads to Saudi Arabia, too. Perhaps my next trip should be across the Red Sea into Yemen?"
Yemen: "The Republic of Yemen is not a place Americans should go without proper consideration and planning. The U.S. State Department Web site says: 'The Department of State has received credible reports that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization have planned attacks against U.S. interests in Yemen, and the Department anticipates that continued threats against U.S. citizens in Yemen remain probable.' Great. While we don't have the State Department's blessing to visit, we do have the Yemeni goverment's most serious attention--everyone from the governor to the U.S. Embassy to even President Ali Abdullah Saleh knows that we're here and we've been assured all appropriate security measures are being taken. So I feel pretty good about my visit. But should you decide to go, please check with reputable guides and tourism officials for the latest news. You never know."
Jambiyas: "My new guide is Sana'a governor and sheik Abdulwahed Al-Bukhiti. We're hoping to go to Marib tomorrow, but before we go, he advises that I should have my very own Jambiya--a curved dagger that all men wear here in the front of their bodies in a special belt. It's a status symbol as well as an indication of tribal relations, as different colors and designs on the jambiya case indicate regional affiliations. So we've come to the best jambiya store in town to get me one. I'm learning that the blade is not what's important--it's the handle that matters. The best handles are made of rhino horn and a good jambiya can costs thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most of them here cost well over $2,000--which is what I get for shopping with a governor. But I manage to find a perfectly nice one that meets my budget. I opt for the sheath to be the Marib style, since that's where we're heading next. But before we go, I have to ask about this green leafy stuff that the workers here are shoving into their mouths. Some look like they've got baseballs in their cheeks."
Qat: "Qat is to Yemen what coca is to the South American highlands. It's a stimulant, a leaf that when chewed produces a calm buzz. Every afternoon between 2 and 6pm, people chew it religiously. It's the social lubricant of Yemen, like tea in England, or perhaps golf or a beer in the U.S. It's part of the culture. People talk while chewing qat, business alliances are made, friendships are forged. Not wanting to offend (and not really having much choice), I try some. Not a lot, as I really do need to sleep tonight, but enough to get a sense of the surprisingly, even shockingly bitter and unique taste. It's NOT like coca, or really anything else I've ever had. The closest I can come--although I recognize even this is not right--is the taste of old, bitter dandelion greens. Or really just any kind of green tree leaf that one would not usually find palatable. They say it's an acquired taste--apparently, it takes more than just a few minutes to acquire, and I'm happy to make my way out of the store without a bigger mouthful. Whew."
Marib & The Wild West of Yemen: "Passing through numerous security check points and countless AK-47s, Abdulwahed and I reach the modern city of Marib. As a courtesy, we pay a visit to the new local governor, who's been in charge here since Abdulwahed became governor of Sana'a. It's an interesting visit, to say the least, and I'm learning that politics are an important part of the social landscape here. With his approval if not his blessing, we head to the hotel for a good night's rest. Only, it wasn't so peaceful. Halfway through the night, the local governor apparently put us under house arrest. To smooth over wounded egos and to help alleviate concerns about my intentions here, Abdulwahed has set up a "meeting of the sheiks" over a traditional dinner in a tent. Hopefully, they will permit my journey to continue."
Dinner with the Sheiks: "This is not my first meal in a Bedouin tent. Nor is it my first time eating 'mezza' or Middle Eastern appetizers, but I'm very conscious of which hand I use (right only) and how I address each person. These are, after all, truly the sheiks of this land, whose tribal authority carries a lot of weight. They've come out of respect to Abdulwahed to hear my intentions, which I state. And, thankfully, the jambiya sheath I selected in Sana'a is from THEIR region, so they're very appreciative of my efforts to dress respectfully. This is another 'thank you' moment in the show for me, and after hearing me out, they do indeed give me their blessing to explore their land on my quest for the Queen of Sheba."
The Marib Dam: "The Marib Dam is yet another testament to the longevity, ingenuity and strength of the Sabaean kingdom that once ruled here. Archaeologist Zaydoon Zaid is giving me the tour, explaining that construction here began in 3200 B.C.--LONG before the Queen of Sheba was ever born. This is great news, as it means that her reign would have come during the possible peak of their civilization's power. This 1/4 mile dam channeled the water from the wadis into two giant sluice gates, where it was used to irrigate the valley below, creating effectively two gardens of paradise. According to Zaydoon, as many as 50,000 people lived here--another indication of a powerful civilization. But an unusually heavy rainy season or an earthquake may have destroyed the dam. However, a nearby palace (!) could be another possible lead to the Queen of Sheba's world."
Mahram Bilqis: "Passing yet one more test from Sheik Marzuk, I'm allowed to explore the 37-acres of the site called the Mahram Bilqis with site manager Merilyn Phillips Hodgson. This place is astounding--as is the story of how Merilyn ended up here. Apparently, her younger brother Wendell Phillips came here seeking archaeological treasures in 1951. Within only a few months, he made some startling and world-famous discoveries, including a 4-foot statue called the Madikarib. But by February, 1952, Wendell had to flee for his life, leaving his site behind, where time and sand would cover it once again. He never returned. Merilyn now heads the American Foundation for the Study of Man to continue his work and the excavations on site. And they've found some equally incredible things, including the bust of a woman who may have once ruled here only a few centuries after the Queen of Sheba herself. Time will tell if Merilyn and her lead archaeologist Abdu Ghaleb are able to discover THE Queen of Sheba or any reference to her. For them, in fact, it's not a question of 'if' but only a question of 'when.'"