June 30, 2005

New Museum Exhibit Showcases Ancient Yemen

WASHINGTON -- Kings came from the East and brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, the Bible says. All three are typical products of Yemen, whose ancient civilization is being introduced to Americans in a big exhibit of finds made since the mid-1900s.

"Caravan Kingdoms," on show at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, explains the country's role as a rich trading center in the Middle East 3,000 years ago.

Saba - Sheba as the Bible calls it - was long the dominant kingdom in Yemen, on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. Frankincense and myrrh - gum resins used in perfumes and incense - were much in demand in ancient temples and for personal adornment. They were taken from small trees in the area and in nearby northeast Africa, today's Somalia.

Gold is still a Yemeni export.

The Yemenis liked to carve in alabaster - white or gently tinted, resembling marble but much softer and slightly translucent. The oldest statues in the exhibit are squat and boxy, with arms outstretched as if to make an offering. Later work is more spectacular, like a woman's head from the earliest Christian times, with eyes of dark blue lapis lazuli and bobbed hair that makes her look like an early 20th century flapper.

They worked in bronze, too. The show has a fine rearing horse more than three feet tall and fragments found nearby which may be the head of the rider. A prized item among the 129 in the exhibit is a bronze statue of Madikarib, a ruler some 2,500 years ago, clad in a skirt and a lion skin.

"It takes little to imagine the temples of the ancient world, that of Solomon included, filled with clouds of incense from Yemen," said Julian Raby, director of the Sackler Gallery. "It takes little to imagine, then, the way in which wealth accrued to the land of Sheba. The people of ancient Yemen transformed the land, turning vertiginous valleys into cascades of agricultural terraces, implanting a ring of cities along the southern fringe of Arabia's Empty Quarter."

The Bible tells how Sheba's queen brought thousands of pounds of gold among her gifts to Solomon.

"There came no more such abundance of spices as those which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon," adds the first book of Kings.

Ancient Yemenis developed their own religion. The Sabaean national god was called Almaqah, and the ruins of a temple dedicated to him can be seen at Marib, the old capital of Saba. They also worshipped other gods, male and female. Temples were built in a distinctive style. Altars within them - some are on exhibit - had images of the temple facades carved on them, so that many altars were images of the temples.

They spoke a Semitic language, related to Arabic and Hebrew, and wrote it in their own angular script. The alphabet, Curator Ann Gunter believes, was derived from that of the Phoenicians, the seafaring people on the Mediterranean coast, whose letters are widely believed to be also the precursor of the Greek, Cyrillic and Hebrew alphabets, as well as the Roman one now in common western use.

The southern tip of the Arabian peninsula is still the most populous part of today's republic of Yemen, a country the size of France with 20 million people. Tourists marvel at distinctive, heavily ornamented, high-rise architecture, much of it built before the age of elevators.

Khaled Abdulla al-Rowaishan, Yemen's minister of culture and tourism, came to a preview of the Washington exhibit on Tuesday to say that he hoped it would become a "window of tourism" for Americans.

"Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade" is open through Sept. 11. Admission is free.


On the Web:

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/default.htm