Will ‘Queen of Sheba’ boost Yemen’s tourism? [Archives:2004/710/Business & Economy]

February 9 2004

Whether she was an ancient matriarch renowned for her wisdom or one of the world's most enduring myths, the Queen of Sheba lives on in her reputed homeland Yemen.
The woman who supposedly inspired the admiration and lust of King Solomon remains one of the most important characters in Yemeni history despite the lack of proof that she even existed.
Now Yemen wants to use the legend of Bilqis, as the Queen of Sheba is known here, to draw tourists to the ruins of the Sabean kingdom that once ruled supreme over the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa as far back as 6,000 years ago.
“There can be no tourism without antiquities so we're preparing the sites and we hope that within a year or two, we can welcome visitors,” said Sadeq Othman, head of the antiquities department in eastern Marib province.
“We believe that the Queen of Sheba ruled from here and we want the whole world to come and see it.”
The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy books as the woman who stood up to Solomon but who renounced paganism after meeting him.
Tales about their encounter abound, but the most popular in Yemen is the Holy Quranic version which tells of how a hoopoe bird informed the monotheistic Solomon about a sun-worshipping Sabean queen and her prosperous kingdom.
Solomon summons the queen, who is not named, but after meeting with her chieftains, sends him gifts instead. Solomon is angered and commands a spirit or jinn to bring over the arrogant queen and her throne, which he paves with glass blocks.
The queen is amazed at being transported to what historians believe is now modern-day Jerusalem and thinking the glass is water, lifts up her skirts in a very undignified way.
The Holy Quran says that after she was humbled by Solomon, she became a believer and an ally.
None of the holy texts mention the legendary love story between the queen and Solomon or how she apparently seduced him after falling in love with his wisdom.
The German archaeologist Burkhard Vogt says inscriptions buried in the sands of Marib might hold the key to this fascinating tale.
Since 1988, a team from the German Archaeological Institute has helped restore the temples of the Sabean kingdom which was a flourishing civilisation exporting valuable incense and gold while Europe was in the Dark Ages.
Vogt said work was still in the pioneer phase because – like Yemen's tourism aspirations – it was jeopardised by the kidnappings and shootings that have marred tribal-dominated Marib for years.
Yemen is also the ancestral homeland Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and attacks by the supporters of this infamous son have also kept tourists away.
Since 2001, the government has launched a crackdown on the militants and the plethora of arms in the country to clean up its image of lawlessness.

Diplomats and officials say this poor country is safer than before and tourism officials hope this will revive a once lucrative industry which has been likened to the oil wealth of Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbours.
“Yemen is safer than New York – the violence that occurs here in a year is much less than that happens there in a day,” said Mutahar Taqi, chairman of the state tourism agency. “Yemen is a unique tourist experience.”
With tourism expected to pick up this year, Yemeni authorities are taking no risks.
Soldiers, guns at the ready, accompany any foreigners who venture into Marib and other troops operate the dozens checkpoints that dot the roads leading to the city.
Tribesmen are required to leave their prized machineguns and ammunition at special depots before crossing into certain areas, but in Marib town, boys as young as 12 bear arms.
The archaeological sites have been looted over the years and visitors need special permission to get beyond the armed guards and barbed wire fence that encircles the monuments.
The German-Yemeni team has so far managed to put together parts of the famous Marib Dam, whose advanced water funnelling system is a testament to Sabean ingenuity.
They have also unearthed most of a temple which Yemenis call the throne of Bilquis but which was used to worship the Sabean goddess of fertility and sexuality.
Work on another larger temple, whose towering columns are one of Yemen's symbols, has revealed passageways from the main chamber to an amphitheatre where the Sabean “cabinet” held court. The ruins of ancient Marib are visible in the distance.
Some historians say the Queen of Sheba might be Ethiopian, while others say she probably ruled the nearby African country which also claims her as its own.
With or without the legendary monarch, the Yemeni archaeologists of Marib are determined to showcase their ancient history to the world. Reuters