Nicholas Clapp
Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen

from the publisher:
Three thousand years ago, a dusky queen swept into the court of King Solomon, and from that time to the present day, her tale has been told and retold. Who was this queen? Did she really exist? In a quixotic odyssey that takes him to Ethiopia, Arabia, Israel, and even a village in France, Nicholas Clapp seeks the underlying truth behind the multifaceted myth of the queen of Sheba.

It's an eventful journey. In Israel, he learns of a living queen of Sheba -- a pilgrim suffering from "Jerusalem Syndrome" -- and in Syria he tracks down the queen's tomb, as described in the Arabian Nights. Clapp investigates the Ethiopian shrine where Menelik, said to be the son of Solomon and the mysterious queen, may have hidden the Ark of the Covenant. The the "worst train in the world" (according to the conductor) takes Clapp to the Red Sea, where he sets sail for Yemen in an ancient dhow and comes perilously close to being shipwrecked.

As in his search for the lost city of Ubar, Clapp uses satellite images, this time to track an ancient caravan route that leads to the queen's winter capital in present-day Yemen. The quest is bolstered by new carbon-14 datings and by the discovery of an Arabian Stonehenge in the sands of the Rub' al-Khali. Finally, at the romantic and haunting ruins of Sirwah, the pieces of the queen of Sheba puzzle fall into place.

Nicholas Clapp is both an award-winning filmmaker and a noted lecturer on archaeology. His first book, The Road to Ubar, was a New York Public Library "Book to Remember" for 1999.

The following is an excerpt from the book Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen by Nicholas Clapp.


On a sleet-streaked November afternoon I ducked into the New York Public Library, collapsed my umbrella -- broken-spoked on the dash from the subway -- sloshed up a grand marble staircase, and turned down a dark hallway leading to the Oriental Division. ("Oriental," in the nineteenth century’s world-view, meant anything to the east of Greece, as in "We Three Kings of Orient Are . . .") In the hallway, the division’s recent titles could be accessed on two computer terminals glowing green on a table to the right. To the left, shelves of black volumes recorded older entries, typed on antique machines and even handwritten. Both sources had pages of entries beginning: "Queen of . . ."

Queen of Bubbles, Queen of Frogs. Queens of Sorrows, Spies, the Swamp, Tears, Tomorrow, the Universe, Rage, and Ruin. But on this damp day, one entry shone, the one I was looking for: the Queen of Sheba. Further crosschecking would pull up hundreds of entries bearing on her life -- if she did ever live -- and times.

I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the pursuit of the queen of Sheba would take me from Canterbury Cathedral to a Czech alchemist’s tower. I would venture to the Orient of old and to Jerusalem, the city where Sheba appeared before King Solomon, a city so at the crux of Western religion that it was long held to be the center of the world.

Curiosity, that old cat-killer, would prod and beckon me on, through the cobbled streets of ancient caravansaries, through grassy green African highlands, across a stormy Strait of Tears, and into the trackless red sands of the Rub‘ al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia.

The desert, I’ve found, is a good place for the curious, for even on a short walk you can expect the unexpected, a glimpse of something you’ve never seen before, be it an oddly striped caterpillar, a rare ghost flower or, as I once found in California’s Mojave, a barely tarnished fighter plane abandoned since World War II. This really doesn’t make sense. One imagines the surprises of the world of nature and of man to be hidden in remote alpine canyons and mist-shrouded jungles. And certainly such places have their share of the unexpected. But it’s in the desert -- open, apparently lifeless, with few places to conceal anything -- where secrets, perhaps the best secrets, are to be found. Or may still lie buried.

On again, off again, for a decade and more, I would seek Sheba in lands (like her?) exotic, sensuous, even sinister. Would the mists of her myth dissolve, and a real queen of a real country step forth? Or, upon investigation, might she prove to be Sheba, Queen of Illusion? I had no idea. But on a winter’s day in New York, I scanned volume after worn volume and was warmed by the promise of adventure offered by Alexander Kinglake, a Victorian “traveling gent”:

There comes a time for not dancing quadrilles, not sitting in pews . . . and now my eyes would see the Splendor and Havoc of the East.