book Sheba

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 55 ~ December, 2001

Before I get to Sheba, the actual subject of this review,
I’d like to take a moment to explore a parallel that occurred to
me about halfway through the book. It’s a parallel that Nicholas
Clapp never addresses directly, but which he must be aware of, because
it is what makes his book cohere.

There is a striking similarity between what happens to very old
stories and what happens to very old monuments. Imagine an ancient
Arabian temple or palace as it was in its heyday, perhaps 3000 years
ago. It’s a grand, imposing structure, brilliantly engineered,
lavishly appointed, and famous throughout the civilized world. Built
by real people out of real stone, it is full of hidden passageways and
chambers that all have their day-to-day purposes. And then,
let’s assume, centuries pass. Perhaps invaders sweep through, or
a dam breaks; at any rate, the civilization that built this structure
dwindles and falls. The site is abandoned. Enticing ornaments are
looted and sold; blocks of masonry fall and are carted away to be used
in new constructions. The desert sands shift and the original
structure is all but buried, all but forgotten — except that
some people remember having heard of a great city that used to be
there, its legendary wealth. In another thousand or so years,
explorers, intrigued by these fragmentary tales, find the site and
begin to dig, but can only guess at what the structure was. They know
it was impressive, and might be able to deduce what it looked like,
but they’ll never know how it came to be, or how it was used. In
the meantime, they’re in hostile territory; the natives, for
religious or secular reasons, don’t want outsiders defiling
their ground, and will defend it through misinformation and force.

Now imagine a story from that ancient world. The story originates
somewhere: an actual event to be commemorated, or a monarch to be
glorified, or a moral or political lesson to be imparted. The story
has its period of currency, when everybody in the region knows it and
knows what it signifies. It spreads through cultures, and through
time, until it seems that everybody in the world has heard it, or some
version of it, but to them it’s just a story, free of
signifiers. As more time passes, nobody remembers what the story
originally referred to, but the characters or the events contained in
the story have become part of the world’s collective wealth. New
storytellers will spin ever more fabulous tales with these characters
or these episodes, borrowing elements of the original to teach new
lessons, and now we’ve entered the realm of myth. A few more
centuries go by, and perhaps we don’t hear these stories much
anymore. If a character is mentioned, it’s in a context with
absolutely no relation to that first story. Ultimately, some curious
scholar or historian might try to reconnect the dots, to trace back to
the original story and what it might have meant, but they really
can’t do much more than dig and guess. And meanwhile, there are
others who have claimed parts of this story as their own, who will try
to defend it against inquisitive interlopers

Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen is
perfectly situated in this conjunction between the fates of old
stories and old structures. And on the whole, it’s great good
fun. Starting with the biblical reference to the Queen of
Sheba’s visit to the court of Solomon, Clapp hunts for this
queen in ancient narratives and ancient civilizations, on a quest for
both the origin of her story, and for insight into how the tale has
rippled through history. He is at least as interested in a good yarn
as he is in archaeology, tracking down pop cultural references to the
Queen of Sheba (nineteenth century operas, an early silent film) with
as much enthusiasm as he has searching Arabia’s ruins for the
historical truth that may underlie her legend. In a work of straight
archaeology this might not make much sense — surely a Nevada
lead mine called The Queen of Sheba has nothing to do with a
three-thousand-year-old queen — but here, where curiosity about
Sheba’s stories is what fired the hunt for Sheba herself,
it’s all of a piece.

Along the way, Clapp takes his readers for an adventurous jaunt that
encompasses medieval mystics, the rise and fall of ancient Arabia, the
founding of the Ethiopian monarchy, and the role King Solomon played
— if there was a King Solomon — in the lucrative spice
trade that made frankincense and myrrh such valuable gifts.
Clapp’s writing is eminently accessible and at the same time
impressively erudite; he makes what could be a dry account of his
visits to archaeological sites as exciting and entertaining as the
Arabian Nights
, and I now know more than I ever thought I would
about Arabian engineering and trade routes circa 1500 BC, and I must
say it’s fascinating stuff.

Sheba is the sort of book that simultaneously makes you want to set
out for the desert, and grateful you’re not in the desert. Clapp
writes with gusto about the wonders concealed by Arabia’s sands,
and with just as much gusto about 140-degree heat, dining on locusts,
and bad men with guns. I can’t help but suspect that he gets
something of a bang out of the dangers he encounters, and that
he’s tickled by the image of himself as Indiana Jones (a
comparison made by a Los Angeles Times reviewer in response to
his last book, and quoted on Sheba’sback cover). Indeed,
I would even guess that Clapp would be disappointed if he didn’t
get to face any peril — that archaeology in France, for example,
would strike him as being insufficiently adventurous. Yet I find
myself thinking, bless him, I hope he writes more. He’s turned
biblical exegesis into page-turning armchair travel. More power to

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.