(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

Nichol as Clapp spent more than twenty years in his search for the Queen of Sheba. His topic crosses at least four continents and spans three millennia. Sheba begins with Clapp’s personal encounter with the Queen of Sheba legend in the very city where she met King Solomon. While in Jerusalem in 1982 to film ancient sites for a documentary, Clapp visited the chapel of the Ethiopian Copts in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There he discovered a modern painting of the queen’s arrival before Solomon. The regal dignity of the queen in this painting led Clapp on an adventurous search for the woman behind this image. This journey took him to the stacks of the New York Public Library, a scholarly seminar in Los Angeles, a winery in Dijon, France, a psychiatric ward in Jerusalem, a nearly shipwrecked dhow en route from Djibouti to Yemen, and into the hands of a potential Yemeni kidnapper. Along the way there were hints of his queen in unusual and unexpected places, such as the lyrics of a 1920 Tin Pan Ally song about a “queen-o’ Pal-es-teen-na,” in the title of a paperback novel read by an elderly Frenchwoman, and in the intense eyes of an Ethiopian woman on a train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti.

In Sheba, Clapp offers more than an adventurous and personal travelogue. He surveys scholarly and archaeological materials in a careful and thoughtful manner and offers the reader photographs of some less-known but historically significant places in Arabia and in Africa. Clapp begins his quest with the brief but memorable biblical tale told in I Kings 10:1-13, where the queen came laden with gold and gems to test the fabled wisdom of the Israelite king, and Solomon in turn gave the queen all she desired before she returned home. Sheba is also mentioned occasionally in other books of the Old Testament, but her appearance in the Koran takes on a stronger religious and moral tone, as the queen agrees to abandon polytheism and to submit herself to Solomon’s god. Clapp, however, cautiously acknowledges the frustrating attempts of biblical scholars and ancient historians to find any historical basis for the story.

The relationship between the Jewish king and his royal visitor becomes even more complicated if Solomon and Sheba are understood to be the lovers in the biblical Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon). In support of this reading, Clapp cites authorities such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who died with references to this biblical book on his lips, but Clapp nevertheless admits that the Song of Songs offers little in the way of solid clues about the historical queen.

Unfortunately, the queen’s existence is corroborated by no independent ancient documents. Old Testament references are even uncertain about the location of Sheba’s eponymous kingdom, which could have been in Arabia, Ethiopia, or somewhere else. Clapp’s journey reflects many of these possibilities, as he considers whether the queen was actually the human equivalent of the Near Eastern goddess Astarte, a powerful ruler of a tribe in northern Arabia, the mother of the first emperor of Ethiopia, or (the theory Clapp clearly prefers) a queen of Saba in southern Yemen.

Solomon is in an equally uncertain historical position. Traditionalists accept the Biblical texts as essentially historical and date Solomon’s reign to the tenth century b.c.e. Other scholars, sometimes known as Minimalists, suggest that many aspects of Solomon’s life are more myth than fact. They question the historicity of his birth, under a cloud of adultery and murder, to King David and Bathsheba, the claim that he united the twelve tribes of Israel into a single nation and, especially, descriptions of his magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Noting that solid archaeological evidence or contemporary written references have yet to be discovered for either the king or any of his buildings in Jerusalem, the Minimalists call into question the very existence of Solomon and his temple.

Clapp is not only interested in the historical queen but also in the legends which have grown around her throughout the centuries. From the Koran, Clapp follows the transformations of Sheba in Arab legend, especially as told by Mohammed ibn Abd Allah Kisa’i in his eleventh century Qisas al-Anabiya’ (Tales of the Prophets of Al-Kisa’i, 1978). Here the queen, named Bilqis, kills a tyrannical king and becomes ruler of Sheba. Solomon learns of the queen’s success from a talking bird and invites her to Jerusalem, where Solomon steals her magnificent throne and through trickery uncovers the queen’s hairy legs and ass’s foot. They then produce a son named Rehoboam.

In Ethiopian legends, the queen of Sheba returns home bearing Solomon’s son, Menelik, the first emperor of Ethiopia. In their fourteenth century national epic, the Kebra Nagast (the glory of kings;Magda, Queen of Sheba, 1907), Ethiopians state that Menelik even stole the Ark of the Covenant from his father’s temple and brought it to his capital of Aksum. According to...

(The entire section is 2056 words.)