This page follows the archaeological evidence behind the figure Queen of Sheba, due to our interest in the claims that the East Asian Xiwang Mu mythical figure might be based on Queen Sheba.
“Jesuit missionaries, the noted American Sinologist Charles Hucker, and London University’s Dr Bernard Leeman (2005) have suggested that Xiwangmu and the Queen of Sheba were one and the same person. The Transcendency of Sheba, a religious group, believes that the Queen of Sheba’s pre-Deuteronomic Torah recorded in the Kebra Nagast was influential in the development of Daoism. They insist that after vacating the throne for her son Solomon the queen journeyed to the Kunlun Mountains where, known as the Queen from the West, she attained spiritual enlightenment.”
“The Kunlun mountains are believed to be Taoist paradise. The first to visit this paradise was, according to the legends, King Mu (976-922 BCE) of the Zhou Dynasty. He supposedly discovered there the Jade Palace of Huang-Di, the mythical Yellow Emperor and originator of Chinese culture, and met Hsi Wang Mu (Xi Wang Mu) , the ‘Spirit Mother of the West’ usually called the ‘Queen Mother of the West’, who was the object of an ancient religious cult which reached its peak in the Han Dynasty, also had her mythical abode in these mountains.” — Mythology of Mt. Kunlun (Cultural China website)
It may be that a religious sect from the Solomonic Menelik’s empire arrived and thrived in Tibet’s Mt. Kunlun, giving rise to the stories of Xiwang Mu that later influenced the beliefs of the peoples of Western and Southwestern China (Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan). Read the background given in the article Development of Ancient China fundamentals, culture & mythical and connection within United Kingdom of Israel & Judah:
“The Transcendences of Sheba, a religious group, believes that the Queen of Sheba’s pre‐Deuteronomy Torah recorded in the Kebra Nagast was influential in the development of Taoism (Daoism/道教).
They insist that after vacating the throne for herson by King Solomom of Israel, the queen journeyed to the Kunlun Mountains where, known as the Queen from the West, she attained spiritual enlightenment” [ More on this below]
Brad Richert in his Ethiopia and the Ark of the Covenant gives us an abridged account of the Kebra Nagast traditions:
“The Kebra Nagast, or the Glory of Kings, is a book dated back at least seven hundred years that contains the developed legend of the Solomonic dynasty of the Ethiopian royal family. According to the Kebra Nagast, Ebna Lahakim was the first Emperor of Ethiopia and was the son of Israel’s King Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba. His royal name was David, after his Israelite grandfather, and the name was later changed to Menelik I in Ethiopian tradition. Contemporary scholars argue whether the ancient kingdom of Sheba is actually in Ethiopia or if it is in modern-day Yemen. Regardless, the tradition is that Ebna Lahakim visited his father’s kingdom and upon his return he was to receive one son of each of his nobles and each of his temple priests along with a replica of the sacred Ark of the Covenant. This may seem strange at first, but it is written that Solomon welcomed his firstborn son joyfully and offered him the heir to the Israelite throne. Ebna Lahakim, however, preferred to rule his mother’s realm in Ethiopia. Solomon had Zadok, the high priest, anoint Ebna Lahakim before the Ark of the Covenant as king of Ethiopia under the royal name of David (or David II). Ebna Lahakim would return to Ethiopia not only as the ancestral heir to the throne, but also as the spiritual heir of the Israelite throne.
The return to Ebna Lahakim’s nation would not be without a significant event to the history of Ethiopia. According to the Kebra Nagast, an angelic intervention caused Zadok’s son Azarias, who was destined for Ethiopia along with the other priestly sons, to plot the removal of the Ark of the Covenant to take to Ethiopia. With the assistance of heavenly beings the plot was successful. Once the convoy back to Ethiopia was out of Israel and into Egypt the conspirators told Ebna Lahakim of the scheme. Ebna Lahakim has previously thought the convoy held the promised replica of the Ark, but the conspirators had in fact switched the two. Ebna Lahakim is said to have danced for joy before the Ark as his grandfather had and all the deities of Egypt shattered into pieces. Henceforth, as the Kebra Nagast proclaims, Ethiopia would follow the God of the Israelites and turn away from their deities of stone.”
See next, Nicholas Clap’s monumental work based on his lifetime’s explorations, Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen and hte Oct 28, 2010 issue of National Geographic news magazine which reported on Nicholas Clap’s efforts, “Book Report: Search for Queen of Sheba Lures Writer to Arabian Desert“:
Although he never found tangible evidence for a historical Queen of Sheba, Clapp chased several leads before he settled on compelling evidence that such a queen existed in what is now Yemen.
In Israel, he learned about a religious pilgrim who claimed to be a living queen of Sheba. In Ethiopia, he pursued the myth of Menelik, who is said to have filched the Ark of the Covenant.
But it was in Yemen where Clapp came closest to the object of his pursuit. Using space images and a device for global positioning system navigation, Clapp conspired with drivers dazed by qat (a narcotic leaf) to follow an ancient caravan route leading to ruins where Sheba’s tomb may lie.
“With that civilization now coming into focus, the biblical account of Sheba and Solomon assumes the marking of a real event and by association gives Solomon credibility as a historical figure,” Clapp notes in his book.
Bibical Queen Revised
The Yemeni ruins of Ma’rib and Sirwah indicate that the Sabeans were an advanced civilization with characteristics that match legends about Sheba, said Clapp. The sites also allow for an archaeological interpretation of I Kings 10:1-13.
According to Clapp, Sheba was probably a powerful merchant queen of Saba who capitalized on the domestication of the camel to open trade routes to the Fertile Crescent Israel, Damascus, Sidon, and Tyre.
In this interpretation, her visit to King Solomon, a hill country chieftain, was a high-powered trade meeting.
The “difficult questions” Sheba asks Solomon in their biblical meeting may have centered on long-range trade, said Clapp. And the gifts she is said to have given to Solomon “a hundred and twenty talents of gold and great quantities of spices and precious stones” are commodities for distribution.
In turn, Solomon gave Sheba “all she expressed a wish for.” Clapp says that in mercantile terms, that wish might have been for passage to the lucrative markets of the Fertile Crescent. The phrase also raises the possibility of an affair of the heart, giving greater credence to the myth of Menelik.
Excavation of the Ma’rib and Sirwah sites is ongoing. “Will there be a day when the Queen of Sheba’s tomb is discovered?” Clapp asks. “[The civilization] went on for 1,800 years, not one of their tombs have been found yet. There is a huge trove of discovery to come.”
There are many versions and accounts of the Queen of Sheba (and Solomon) story, the key however, to understanding what really happened are to be found, according to Dr Bernard Leeman’s careful reconstructions and comparative surveys of the differing traditions, in the Ge’ez transcript of sections of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle of the Kebra Nagast concerning the route of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. In it he associates the figure of Sheba and son Menelik, with an ancient Judah in Arabia:
“there are very obvious reasons why an ancient Arabian Judah could have prospered and reached a zenith in the period 1000-925 B.C. and then lost power to Israel in Omri’s reign. Salibi placed Israel in the northern Hijaz near Medina and Judah in the south in Asir next to Yemen. Following the ca. 1200 B.C. domestication of the camel, which Arab traditions ascribe to the Hebrew, the western Arabian escarpment became an important trade route for Sabaean/Sheban gold, gemstones and incense caravans and attracted Egyptian and Assyrian imperial control. However, between about 1000-925 B.C. the Egyptians withdrew to deal with invasions by the Sea Peoples [Kitchen 2003: 99-100] while Assyria pulled back to counter the threat of Aramaean population movements near the border of what is now modern Turkey [Lipiński 2000]. These withdrawals opened the way for an opportunistic local population (e.g. the Hebrew) to seize control of the lucrative Sabaean trade and grow rich from taxing the caravans. Despite the 460 year captivity Hebrew has no Egyptian words but Rabin noted in another work that it contains trade words such as “sapphires” from India, which appears to indicate it was on a major trade route from India to Egypt [Rabin 1968]…
Many Arab traditions support Salibi’s suggestions. For example Mecca is associated with Abraham and there is an ancient tradition the Red Sea was once blocked by a volcanic lava flow at the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb between Yemen and Eritrea which then broke causing massive death and destruction in the subsequent flood. Interestingly the word for Hebrew in Hebrew and Sabaean is not only identical (’BR) but has a second meaning in both languages of “those who crossed over” [Biella:350]. Since the Beta Israel and the Zagwe royal house have strong traditions about Moses, there is speculation that Moses’ Red Sea crossing may have been at its southern end. Support for this comes from Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, the Cushite daughter of the Prophet Jethro. Salibi places Zipporah’s home as Kush (Kshm) next to the volcanic mountain in northern Yemen named Jebel al-Nabi Shu’ayb – the mountain of the prophet Shu’ayb. Shu’ayb is Arabic for Jethro. In 1997 a team of Canadian archaeologists [Keall 1997] discovered a ring of large monoliths on the coastal plain below Jebel al-Nabi Shu’ayb dating from about 1800 B.C. (Moses’ era) and therefore, if Salibi’s Arabian location for the Exodus is true, the pillars may be the same mentioned in Exodus 24:4. Perhaps the Hebrew captivity occurred near or in Ethiopia …
Whoever wrote the Sheba-Menelik Cycle was obviously not referring to a Jerusalem in Palestine. On page 11 is a map of Menelik’s journey from Jerusalem to Ethiopia with Jerusalem sited in Palestine. The account makes no sense.
When Salibi’s book was published in 1985 this writer wrote to him about the strange geography of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle and asked him to send his hypothetical map of an Arabian Judah marking place names mentioned in the Ethiopian document in case the Cycle’s contents matched his hypothesis of an ancient Judah in West Arabia. Salibi replied [Letter 15 February 1987] that he was not conversant with the Sheba-Menelik Cycle but kindly sent his map. The result was sensational for it showed that the author of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle was referring to a Judah opposite Ethiopia in West Arabia not to one in Palestine.
A map of Menelik’s journey from Jerusalem to Ethiopia with Jerusalem and other locations sited by Salibi in West Arabia is on page 12. Since Salibi drew his map blind to the Sheba-Menelik Cycle narrative of the journey of the Ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, the result is quite astonishing. It explains why the Beta Israel traditionally prayed to a Jerusalem in the east (in Arabia), not one to the north (in Palestine). It would also explain why the word “Falasha” and the word for the Beta Israel’s house of prayer are both Sabaean in origin [Biella;405; Leslau 1991:363] but most of all why Ethiopian culture is so heavily Judaic, obsessed with the Ark and drew its political legitimacy from Moses (Zagwe dynasty ca A.D. 1137-1270) and Solomon (Haile Selaisse). The short period of imperial Sabaean occupation and high culture ca.800 – 500 B.C. could probably be attributed to Sabaean attempts to find other trade routes to escape the instability in West Arabia as the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah vied for supremacy and were then respectively destroyed by Assyria and Babylon.
Jacqueline Pirenne [1918-1990] suggested that the Beta Israel, First Temple Israelites, were refugees from the Assyrian (772 B.C.) and Babylonian (587 B.C.) conquests [Munro-Hay 1991:65]. Two Sabaean monarchs gave tribute to the Assyrians in 456 and 487 B.C., indicating the Assyrians were far closer than Palestine. [Schippmann 2001:39]….
Salibi’s book was banned in Saudi Arabia and Syria for implying that Modern Israel should annex Asir and Hijaz provinces. All references to this writer’s work that argued that evidence from the life of the Queen of Sheba supports Salibi’s hypothesis have systematically been removed from Wikipedia from early 2010 onwards and a Saudi student arrested and briefly jailed when a copy was found on his return home. While the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Beta Israel, the Yemeni Jews, the Rastafarians, Ethiopian and Eritrean university students and tour guides, and David Hubbard were intrigued by the idea of an Arabian Judah…
One important consequence however would be to make early Ethiopian history, Beta Israel and Ethiopian Orthodox Church traditions, and the Ge’ez language major biblical and historical academic disciplines. However the Arabian Judah hypothesis appears too much of a threat to academic funding, academic reputations, Holy Land tourism, and political agenda to warrant consideration let alone open debate.”
The Evidence, he gives us for the existence of an Arab-Judaen-Sabaen population is as follows:
“The most important inscriptional evidence supporting the Sheba-Menelik Cycle is found on two of three Sabaean incense burners [photo, page 37] kept in the Church of Abun Garima at Adi Kaweh, a hilltop village eight kilometers south-west of Wukro, near Mekele in Ethiopia [Schneider 1973; Leeman 2009]. The church is sited on a much older structure, most probably a major Sabaean temple, because the two larger incense burners were found a short distance respectively at and below two other hill top Sabaean structures to the east and west of Adi Kaweh. The eastern site is the alleged burial place of Queen Yodit, the pagan-Hebraic leader who destroyed Aksum in the 10th century A.D., and also the location of ca.800 B.C. Sabaean temple in the process of excavation [Leeman 2009]. The Sabaean inscriptions state that the area was part of the realm of D’mt and was ruled by four named high kings and kings of Sheba and D’mt, three of whom ruled with unnamed high queens and queens of Sheba3 over a mixed population of red (Semitic) Sabaeans and black (Cushitic)’BR Hebrew) [Schneider 1973, Fattovich 1990].4
The inscriptions are the work of professional stone masons from Marib (Yemen) and indicate that the Sabaeans were at that time making a major effort to dominate the area while cooperating in conjunction with the local (probably Cushitic) population [Durrani:122] It is generally assumed that the realm of D’mt with a major centre at Yeha, the site of a huge Sabaean temple, gave way to Aksum around the first century B.C. but this is not absolutely certain and the D’mt realm may have lasted until Queen Yodit’s time (she was queen of “Damot” ca. A.D. 970). The Adi Kaweh inscriptions therefore support the story that a mixed population of Sabaeans and Hebrew (Israelites) was ruled jointly by kings and queens of Sheba in northern Ethiopia one hundred and twenty five years after Solomon’s death and probably much earlier. The inscriptions at Adi Kaweh are the oldest mention of the Hebrew people.
The next piece of information concerns ancient Hebrew-Israelite populations, traditions, religious practices and customs in Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Until most were evacuated to Israel in the late 1980’s Ethiopia possessed a large population of Beta Israel (“Black Jews”, “Falasha”). They are the only “Judaic” group to contain Nazarites (like Samson). In addition there are many Ethiopians who claim they are Israelite in origin but converted to Christianity. These are known as “Falasha Mura.”
Next are the Qemant, who practise a religion described as “pagan-Hebraic” [Gamst]; and the Yibir/Ibro (“Hebrew”), a landless Agaw serf caste in Somaliland, who are nominally Muslim but traditionally are despised and partly feared as being pagan Hebraic sorcerers [Kirk 1905:184, Farah 2006:6, Leeman 2005, 2009]. In addition there is a group in Eritrea associated with the traditional landowning aristocracy of Hamasien and the present leadership of the Eritrean government known as “Latos” or “Mai Bela.” Because they are so secretive, no more than a paragraph has been published about them. The Israelis recognise them as Jews but they seem to a mixture of Israelites and Christians, a sort of Judeo-Christian group with a headquarters at Himberti, priests called kes and holy places called kansha [from kanisa meaning a church]. Outsiders call them Latos, from Pilatos (Pontius Pilate = Christ killer). They call themselves Mai Bela, from the river bank where Menelik was born [Leeman 2005, 2009].
Besides the pagan-Hebraic and Israelite groups there are the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians themselves who retain ancient Judaic practices and other elements, some of which are no longer associated with “main stream” Judaism. The chief authority on Hebraic influences in Ethiopia is Professor Edward Ullendorff [1920 – ], who Ullendorff [1956, 1968] concludes that the Hebraic and First Temple Israelite influences in Ethiopia are very ancient while the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi [1998b:62-63] suggests that a form of Israelite religion (“Nazarene”) associated with exiles who fled to Yemen from the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem was influential at the court of Aksum from about 586 BC to A.D. 332 and this faith was incorporated into Christianity in the fourth century A.D. to accommodate the tradition that Aksum was the True Zion as well as the keeper of the True Faith (Monophysite Christianity). Others argue that Monophysite Christianity around Antioch, Alexandria, and Byzantium/Constantinople had itself incorporated Jewish practices from the “Greeks” (Hellenised Jews) who formed the nucleus of early Christianity. Whatever the reason Ethiopian Christianity has a significant element of First Temple Israelite religion within it and some clerics such as Ewostatewos (ca.1273-1352) at Debra Bizen in Eritrea went into exile rather than accept a ban on “Jewish” practices, which is why both Saturday and Sunday are still respected as holy days [Tamrat 1977, Beylot 1995]. Ullendorff believes that maybe half of Ethiopia’s population was Israelite when Christianity was introduced. In areas such as Agame (where people still endure the insult “Yehud”) in northern Ethiopia and in Hamasien in Eritrea mass acceptance of Christianity has allegedly been fairly recent but the Latos/Mai Bela have chosen western churches instead of the Orthodox [Leeman 2005:185-6] and totally ignore Asmara’s Italian synagogue.
Fourth is the Ge’ez word for the Ark of the Covenant – “tabot.” There are two main authorities on this word. The first, Theodore Nöldeke (1836-1930) was so confused by the word that he termed it an “atrocious monstrosity” [Nöldeke 1860:211] because in his view the word should not exist because it had somehow come to Ethiopia during Solomon’s time. The second scholar, Chaim Rabin (1915-1996), was also deeply perplexed by the word. He concluded that the word was indeed ancient and had come from the Medina area of Arabia during Solomon’s era [Rabin 1951:109].
Fifth, the Hebrew Old Testament and Jewish traditions do not record how the Ark of the Covenant vanished. Nor do they explain why Azariah the high priest of Judah (the Sheba-Menelik Cycle identifies him as the son of the high priest) disappeared and his Zadokite priesthood only reappeared three hundred years later Hilkiah …Hubbard noted that the Sheba-Menelik Cycle contains variants of the Old Testament whereas the Old Testament quotations in the Caleb Cycle adhere to the Christian era “official” Ge’ez version of the Old Testament. The Sheba-Menelik Cycle contains the Holiness Code [Leviticus 17-26], which Biblical Scholars agree is one of the oldest parts of the Old Testament.
Next, the German missionary Johann Martin Flad [1831-1915], noted that the Beta Israel, the First Temple Israelite Cushitic population of Ethiopia who have now mostly adopted Semitic Tigrinya and Amharic, recited Hebrew prayers in Agaw, although most no longer understood the meaning [Flad 1869; Leslau 1951:xxi].
In summarising the above evidence it seems that at the very least Ethiopia has an ancient association with the Israelite First Temple and a culture obsessed even today with the Ark of the Covenant reflecting the ancient existence of an Israelite state that eventually nearly obliterated the Christian state of Aksum under its pagan-Hebraic Queen Yodit ca. A.D. 970. It appears impossible to accept relatively recent writers’ contentions [Hancock, Kaplan, Quiran, Shelemay] that the Beta Israel adopted a syncretic form of Judaism from ca 500-400 B.C. Aramaic speaking Israelite troops at Elephantine (Aswan in Egypt) on the Nile or affected it in medieval times to distance themselves from their Semitic-speaking Christian overlords and escape imperial taxation. “
Now perhaps lending credence to all of the above Ethiopian and Arab oral traditions is the alleged archaeological discovery of Queen Sheba’s gold mines in Ethiopia’s northern highlands…see article excerpt that follows on below:
Bible and archaeology news 02/14/2012
British archaeologists exploring the Gheralta plateau in Ethiopia’s northern highlands claim to have discovered an enormous goldmine once operated by the ancient kingdom of Saba, home to the legendary Queen of Sheba. The expedition, led by author, lecturer and former British Museum curator Louise Schofield, claims to have found the entrance to the mine, a 20-foot-tall stone stela carved with Sabaean inscriptions and symbols, as well as the remnants of a temple dedicated to the chief god of the land of Saba. The discoveries were made as part of Schofield’s environmental development work in Ethiopia on behalf of the Tigray Trust.
A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures.
Almost 3,000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory.
Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: “One of the things I’ve always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba’s mines is extraordinary.”
An initial clue lay in a 20ft stone stele (or slab) carved with a sun and crescent moon, the “calling card of the land of Sheba”, Schofield said. “I crawled beneath the stone – wary of a 9ft cobra I was warned lives here – and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken.”
On a mound nearby she found parts of columns and finely carved stone channels from a buried temple that appears to be dedicated to the moon god, the main deity of Sheba, an 8th century BC civilisation that lasted 1,000 years. It revealed a victory in a battle nearby, where Schofield excavated ancient bones.
Although local people still pan for gold in the river, they were unaware of the ancient mine. Its shaft is buried some 4ft down, in a hill above which vultures swoop. An ancient human skull is embedded in the entrance shaft, which bears Sabaean chiselling.
Sheba was a powerful incense-trading kingdom that prospered through trade with Jerusalem and the Roman empire. The queen is immortalised in Qur’an and the Bible, which describes her visit to Solomon “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones … Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices.”
Although little is known about her, the queen’s image inspired medieval Christian mystical works in which she embodied divine wisdom, as well as Turkish and Persian paintings, Handel’s oratorio Solomon, and Hollywood films. Her story is still told across Africa and Arabia, and the Ethiopian tales are immortalised in the holy book the Kebra Nagast.
Hers is said to be one of the world’s oldest love stories. The Bible says she visited Solomon to test his wisdom by asking him several riddles. Legend has it that he wooed her, and that descendants of their child, Menelik – son of the wise – became the kings of Abyssinia.
Schofield will begin a full excavation Schofield said that as she stood on the ancient site, in a rocky landscape of cacti and acacia trees, it was easy to imagine the queen arriving on a camel, overseeing slaves and elephants dragging rocks from the mine.
once she has the funds and hopes to establish the precise size of the mine, whose entrance is blocked by boulders.
Tests by a gold prospector who alerted her to the mine show that it is extensive, with a proper shaft and tunnel big enough to walk along.
Schofield was instrumental in setting up the multinational rescue excavations at the Roman city of Zeugma on the Euphrates before it was flooded for the Birecik dam. Her latest discovery was made during her environmental development work in Ethiopia, an irrigation, farming and eco-tourism project on behalf of the Tigray Trust, a charity she founded to develop a sustainable lifestyle for 10,000 inhabitants around Maikado, where people eke out a living from subsistence farming.
Sean Kingsley, archaeologist and author of God’s Gold, said: “Where Sheba dug her golden riches is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. Timna in the Negev desert is falsely known as ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, but anything shinier has eluded us.
“The idea that the ruins of Sheba’s empire will once more bring life to the villages around Maikado is truly poetic and appropriate. Making the past relevant to the present is exactly what archaeologists should be doing. “
Queen of Sheba’s lost gold mine discovered, archaeologist claims … Fox News, Feb 15, 2012
“A British archaeologist working in northern Ethiopia believes she may have discovered an ancient goldmine that holds clues about where the Queen of Sheba obtained her storied wealth.
Louise Schofield, a former curator at the British Museum, told The Observer she was alerted to the mine by a gold prospector while working on an environmental development project in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
The shaft, buried some four feet (1.2 meters) underground with an ancient human skull embedded in its entrance, apparently had not attracted much attention, even though locals panned for gold in a nearby river.
I crawled beneath the stone — wary of a nine-foot cobra I was warned lives here …
– Archaeologist Louise Schofield
The site is within the former territory of the nearly 3,000-year-old Sheba kingdom, which scholars believe spanned from Ethiopia to Yemen. Schofield pointed to nearby clues that suggest the site was an important place in the ancient civilization, including a 20-foot (six-meter) stone slab carved with a sun and crescent moon — a “calling card of the land of Sheba,” she told The Observer.
“I crawled beneath the stone — wary of a nine-foot [three-meter] cobra I was warned lives here — and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken,” the archaeologist told the paper.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Queen of Sheba is described as arriving in Jerusalem to greet King Solomon with “a very numerous retinue, and with camels bearing spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones.”
“One of the things I’ve always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths,” Schofield told The Observer. “The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba’s mines is extraordinary.”
She added that she hopes to begin a full excavation of the mine, whose entrance is blocked by boulders, once she has the funds…”
If it could be established that Queen Sheba is cognate for the Chinese Xiwang Mu, we would still wonder how the stories of Queen Sheba arrived in China. This next excerpt suggests the possibility that the myth arrived with the massive wave of immigration said to have emerged from the area of the Marib dam all the way to China: see The Sabaens: “Arab legend has it that the collapse of the Marib dam sparked a massive emigration from the area, what is today part of Yemen. These emigrants allegedly settled in great numbers in the north, eventually drifting with the Islamic conquest as far as northern Spain and China.”
Who then were the Sabaens?
The people who called themselves Sabaʾ (biblical Sheba) are both the earliest and the most abundantly attested in the surviving written records. Their centre was at Maʾrib, east of present-day Sanaa and on the edge of the sand desert. (In the indigenous inscriptions Maʾrib is rendered Mryb or Mrb; the modern spelling is based on an unjustified “correction” by medieval Arabic writers.) The town lay in a formerly highly cultivated area watered by the great Maʾrib Dam, which controlled the flow from the extensive Wadi Dhana basin.
Sabaean rulers—who are mentioned in Assyrian annals of the late 8th and early 7th centuries bce(although some scholars date Sabaean inscriptions to about the 6th century BCE)—were responsible for impressive constructions both cultic and irrigational, including the greatest part of what is now visible of the dam; but there are traces of earlier dam works, and the silt deposits indicate agricultural exploitation far back in prehistory.
From the early historic period one ruler, named Karibʾil Watar, has left a long epigraphic record of victories over peoples throughout the major part of Yemen, most importantly the Awsānian kingdom to the southeast (See History of Arabia).
DNA evidence suggests that the Sabaens were descended from the ancient inhabitants of Africa or Ethiopia, and were the Cushitic peoples: See the 1999 study by Lucotte and Smets that concluded that “the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of the Beta-Israel …[was] consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia and not the Levant”; A 2000 study by Hammer et al. of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes of Jewish and non-Jewish groups suggested that while “paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population”, the Beta Israel, who were “affiliated more closely with non–Beta Israel Ethiopians and other East Africans”;  A 2004 study by Shen et al. concluded that the Beta Israel were likely descended from local Ethiopian populations; A 2009 autosomal DNaby Tishkoff et al., concluded that the Beta Israel were predominantly of the Cushitic genetic cluster, typically found in populations from East Africa; and last but not least, a 2012 study showed that although they more closely resemble the indigenous populations of Ethiopia, the Beta Israel have some distant Jewish ancestry, going back 2,000 years. This has resulted in speculation that the community was founded by a few Jewish itinerants who moved to Ethiopia, converted locals to Judaism, and married into the local population (see Wikipedia article Beta Israel).
The Rise of the Arabs: A Sabaean AAR on the missing years of Sabaen history …
Before the battle for the city of Tamane, Karab, the Malek of the Qataban, attempted to negotiate with Yazil. “By what right do you break the sacred covenant between the tribes, and attack your neighbor unprovoked?,” demanded Karab. To which Yazil replied, “Your weakness is what provoked me. That I can stand before you like this proves that you are not worthy to be the Mukarrib, and that I will defeat you tomorrow shall prove that you were not worthy even as the Malek of your tribe.” It is hard to reckon the years of Arabian history before the reestablishment of Sabaean hegemony among the tribes of Yemen by Yazil Il Watar. Certain dates can be figured out through the records of other nations, if cross-referenced with the ancient records of the kings, but before Yazil, it is hard to tell history from myth. The Sabaeans had originally held leadership over the federation of Southern Arabian tribes. Their kings took the title of Mukarrib, meaning the “covenant maker”. It is said that their rule lasted for nearly 700 years, and that their influence expanded across the Red Sea over the kingdom of D’mit. The last Malek of the Saba to hold the title of Mukarrib was Samahu’Ali Yanuf. Roughly two-hundred fifty years before Yazil Il Watar would come to power [approximately 525 BC].
[A side-note of interest on the etymology of the word Sabaen-Yemeni city of Tamane (cf. widespread occurrence of “tama” in Japanese mythology) see
Most history records stated that ancient nation of Qataban believed in worshiping the stars in general…
The Austrian traveler-scientist Glazer was the first to identify the location of ancient Tamane’, the capital city of the ancient Yemeni Kingdom Qataban. He stated that it was situated along Beihan Valley. The came in his book “The Abyssenians in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa”, which was published in Muneich in the year 1895. Today, the site is known to be Hajr Khahlan city lying towards the left side of the bank of Wadi Beihan, where it comes almost close to flowing its water to the desert plateau.
The first explorer to visit the site was the English traveler Berry in the year 1900. Khadi M. Al-Akwa made a search on a book entitled “The language and descendants”. The word Qataban had been written in that book as reference to one of the rulers known by the name Qutaban bin Ramada. As for the word Tamane’ comprising four Arabic alphabets, it was seen on some of the ancient money coins discovered lately (in 1892 and 1894) in Yemen. However, the mystery of both names was solved later in 1924 by the scientist Rhodo Canaces who discovered the first ancient inscriptions telling about this Kingdom. These were discovered on some ancient walls he found in Hajr Khahlan. Thus it became clear that it was the real site of Tamane’ city of ancient Qataban state. It was regarded the second biggest city of ancient Yemen after Mareb. Belieny, another foreign explorer, stated that there used to be 65 temples built all around Tamane’.
Iraq: Old Sabaean-Mandean Community Is Proud of Its Ancient Faith (RFE/RL) July 14, 2004 Excerpted below:
Many in Iraq know Sabaean-Mandeans as a peaceful though strange religious community, more known for silver and gold craftsmanship than their religious beliefs.
Satar Jabar Helo is the head priest and spiritual leader of the Sabaeans in Iraq, a small community of some 75,000 believers.
Sabaeans also live in neighboring Iran. There are a total of 150,000 members worldwide.
Sabaeans are a lonely and reclusive community. Helo says they have not proselytized since 70 years after the death of Jesus Christ, when 365 Sabaean priest were killed in a single day in Babylon.
There is only one way to become a Sabaean, according to Helo: to be born to parents who both belong to the faith.
Helo, dressed in a white robe, with a long beard and flowing hair, speaks about darkness and light, good and evil, life and death, and the role of human beings in these unfolding cosmic events.
He says Sabaeans pray three times a day to God in Aramaic, a language close to the one spoken by Jesus Christ: “In the name of the living Great, in the name of the One and the Only One who is the world of pure light who gives a soul, gives health, peace and peace of heart and forgiveness of sins with the force of the explosions of light.”
A Sabaean house of prayer, which bears a cross, resembles a Christian church. There is a difference, however, the Sabaean cross is half-covered with a piece of cloth.
Helo says the symbol has nothing to do with Christianity and Sabaeans do not consider Jesus Christ to be the son of God. The Sabaean cross has a different meaning.
“The symbol [of the cross] — Darf — symbolizes two branches of the olive tree [put on one another] making a plus sign, and the plus sign represents four sides of the universe,” Helo says. “And God’s light is symbolized by pure silk cloth [put on the sign].”
Helo says Sabaeans have no doubts their religion is older than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
“We believe our religion is older than Judaism, Islam or Christianity, and has nothing to do with those religions,” he says. “The teaching we have is inherited generation by generation by copying [our sacred book] by hand. We believe that he who re-writes the book from the first to the last page will receive great blessings.”
Helo says Sabaeans share some similarities with both Muslims and Christians. “We are similar with Islam in describing the God as one and indivisible,” he says. “And we, like Christians, believe in the secret powers of baptism and give immense importance to Prophet Zakariya [John the Baptist].” Some say it is one of the reasons that Sabaean communities prefer to live near the water.
However, the differences seem to overweigh the similarities. Helo says the teachings of the Sabaeans was sent to Adam, the first human being on earth, by an archangel.
Sabaean dogma is written in the holy book “Kinzeraba,” or “The Holy Treasure.” The book describes light as fighting against darkness or evil. White and other light tones are the favored colors of Sabaeans.
Helo explains why: “Wearing white means belonging to the world of light and means wearing the clothes of angels. We [priests] do not wear anything but white. We pray only when we wear white. All colors come from the color white. You can’t make any colors from black.”
Sabaeans need to obey the provisions written in “The Holy Treasure.” They are forbidden to kill, lie, commit adultery or theft, or consume alcohol. They are also forbidden to mourn the dead, and must fast 36 days a year, abstaining from eating meat, eggs, and fish.
Members of the community should help poor people, making no distinction between co-religionists and outsiders. Wafah Sabah, a woman in her 20s, tells RFE/RL that Sabaeans treat one another as members of a family.
“We are all brothers and sisters. If somebody needs help, we will help,” Sabah says. “If you help another person, another day he will help you. We, Mandeans, are one family; we are all brothers and sisters. There is no difference between this man and that girl.”
The account above mentions that Sabaens also lived in Iran. It is possible that the accounts of Queen Sheba were transformed tales from Persians reaching China… judging by the details of the gardens of immortals and of peach trees in the garden of Xiwang Mu, of which are motifs common to the Persians and Western China.
Like Xiwangmu, garden details featured in medieval tapestry show Queen of Sheba in the midst of her gardens:
Mandaens: Ancient texts and modern people AAR, by JJ Buckley
Accounts of origins of Queen of Sheba are given at the following pages:
Queen of Sheba (BBC 17/2/2011)
Sabaen inscriptions (Smithsonian’s Written in Stone page)
The Wikipedia article on the significance of the Queen of Sheba in history and literature::
Christian interpretations of the scriptures mentioning the Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible, typically have emphasized both the historical and metaphorical values in the story. The account of the Queen of Sheba is thereby interpreted by Christians as being both a metaphor and an analogy: the Queen’s visit to Solomon has been compared to the metaphorical marriage of the Church to Christ where Solomon is the anointed one or the messiah and Sheba represents a Gentile population submitting to the messiah; the Queen of Sheba’s chastity has also been depicted as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary; and the three gifts that she brought (gold, spices and stones) have been seen as analogous to the gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense and myrrh). The latter is emphasized as being consistent with a passage from Isaiah 60:6; And they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring forth gold and incense; and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord. This last connection is interpreted[who?] as relating to the Magi, the learned astronomers of Sheba who saw a new star and set off on a journey to find a new ruler connected to the new star, that led them to Bethlehem.
Art in the Middle Ages depicting the visit of the Queen of Sheba includes the Portal of the Mother of God at the 13th century Amiens Cathedral, which is included as an analogy as part of a larger depiction of the gifts of the Magi. The 12th century cathedrals at Strasbourg, Chartres, Rochester and Canterbury include artistic renditions in such elements as stained glass windows and door jamb decorations.
Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (Latin: De Mulieribus Claris) follows Josephus in calling the Queen of Sheba, Nicaula. Boccaccio goes on to explain that not only was she the Queen of Ethiopia and Egypt, but also the queen of Arabia. She also is related to have had a grand palace on “a very large island” called Meroe, located someplace near the Nile river, “practically on the other side of the world.” From there Nicaula crossed the deserts of Arabia, through Ethiopia and Egypt and up the coast of the Red Sea, to come to Jerusalem to see “the great King Solomon“.
Christine de Pizan‘s The Book of the City of Ladies continues the convention of calling the Queen of Sheba, Nicaula. Piero della Francesca‘s frescoes in Arezzo (ca 1466) on the Legend of the True Cross, contain two panels on the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. The legend links the beams of Solomon’s palace (adored by Queen of Sheba) to the wood of the crucifixion. The Renaissance continuation of the metaphorical view of the Queen of Sheba as an analogy to the gifts of the Magi also is clearly evident in the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1510), by Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch chooses to depict a scene of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon in an ornately decorated collar worn by one of the Magi.
Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus refers to the Queen of Sheba as Saba, when Mephistopheles is trying to persuade Faustus of the wisdom of the women with whom he supposedly shall be presented every morning.
Lesley Downer travels alone and at ease in the land where one of our earliest ancestors was born — and where the Queen of Sheba lives on
BY LESLEY DOWNER Japan Times, June 30, 2013
I’m edging my way through a long tunnel in pitch darkness, feeling for the roof so I don’t hit my head, waving my trusty flashlight around to scan the walls and sandy floor and check for any unwelcome wildlife. I feel like Indiana Jones but a lot less brave.
Then, after rounding a bend, I see a dot of light and emerge into a small cave. Through two large holes in the wall, I glimpse a splendidly carved building — one of the famous rock-hewn Lalibela churches. But when I peek through the holes, I see that they are halfway up a cliff face with no visible way down — no steps, no handholds … and it’s way too far to jump. So, behind me is the pitch-black tunnel I’ve just come out of; ahead a vertiginous drop.
Just for a moment I find myself wondering what on Earth I’m doing here. The answer is simple: I’ve been intrigued by Ethiopia ever since I heard stories about the Ark of the Covenant — a chest said to hold the biblical Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets — being here.
There are icons, castles, churches carved out of living rock, and one of the most ancient and vibrant forms of Christianity. Ethiopia is also said to have been the land of the Queen of Sheba and — as if that weren’t enough — of Prester John, whom fables in medieval Europe held to be the Christian ruler of a kingdom lost amid the Muslims and pagans in the Orient.
It’s obvious I had to experience Ethiopia for myself.
Admittedly I had some qualms before setting out. Everyone I asked, even intrepid young men, went on organized tours — while I would be a woman alone. People who had been there told me the capital, Addis Ababa, was overwhelming; those who hadn’t been there begged me to take care — or better, call it off.
In fact I began to wonder if I was completely mad. But tours are just not my style. I’ve always traveled on my own; I feel it’s the only way to truly experience a country and meet the people; added to which, guidebooks and friends of friends who’d been there assured me that Ethiopia is very safe — the safest country in Africa, no less. The only dangers might be having my pocket picked or getting food poisoning, both of which I felt prepared to deal with (and neither of which befell me).
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, known for the famine that devastated it in 1984. It borders on Somalia and was wracked by a two-year war from 1998-2000 over a border dispute with Eritrea. But while not wealthy, I was to discover the country is peaceful and orderly, with very friendly people.
At the airport, instead of scowling as most immigration officers do, the official gives me a huge smile and says, “Welcome!”
Addis Ababa, which is home to around 2.5 million of the country’s roughly 87 million population, has a rather elegant Mediterranean feel, with houses washed in pale colors and trees rising between them. Mountains loom not far away, pale and misty. The streets are dusty. There are cranes and bulldozers, new roads being dug, buildings going up. This is a city in the process of making.
The people look sophisticated and well-dressed. Women wear their hair plaited tight to the head then flaring out at the shoulders. They are black-skinned with straight noses and huge eyes, very beautiful.
I start by paying my respects to Lucy. Some 3.2 million years ago, Lucy walked upright here amid vegetation very different from today’s. One of a species of hominid known as Australopithecus afarensis, she is among our most ancient ancestors — a missing link connecting us to the apes.
Parts of Lucy’s fossilized skeleton and skull were discovered in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley, some 110 km from Addis, in 1974, and are now in the dimly-lit basement of the city’s National Museum. It’s curiously moving to see her bones alongside the skull of a 3-year-old girl with a small, pointed, pixie face who lived even earlier, 3.3 million years ago. I feel as if I’m reaching back to touch the origins of humanity.
At the museum’s Lucy Restaurant, airy and tropical with outdoor tables under palm trees, I have my first taste of the Ethiopian staple, injera — a grayish-brown fermented bread like a huge chapati with a sourdough taste. It’s usually served with meat but I order “fasting food,” the vegetarian meal that devout Ethiopians eat for three months before Easter. Piled on the injera are different sorts of spicy dal — brown, orange, green — together with a whole chilli and piles of spinach and carrots. In proper Ethiopian style I tear off pieces of the bread, wrap dal and vegetables in it, and pop the lot into my mouth.
Early next morning I fly to Aksum, in the north of the country. In ancient times Aksum was the capital of a mighty empire, as glorious as Greece or Rome, which flourished between the third and sixth centuries A.D. and dominated the area between southern Arabia and the Sudan. Here merchants from Egypt, Arabia and India met to trade in gold, frankincense, rhino horn, apes and ivory.
In Addis I hired a car and a driver. But now the time has come, I decide, to step out alone into the dusty streets. For the first few minutes I feel a little apprehensive, but then I look around and realize I have nothing to fear. While older people are dignified and go about their business and pay no attention to me at all, the youngsters seem extremely friendly. Many speak excellent English and are eager to practice it.
These days, Aksum is little more than a village, but it’s dotted with obelisks soaring into the sky or lying in fragments on the ground, mysterious remnants of that ancient empire. The largest cluster of these stelae is at the end of the valley, where they rise like great stone needles out of the dusty plain, carved with ornamental windows and doors like ancient skyscrapers. Beneath them are a network of ancient carved tombs, chamber after chamber disappearing into darkness.
The most splendid stele of all, carved with a hammerhead top, has only recently returned here. In 1937, during the country’s 1935-41 occupation by fascist Italy, it was shipped to Rome on dictator Benito Mussolini’s orders and erected in the Piazza di Porta Capena. After lengthy negotiations, it was only brought back in 2008.
Ethiopia and Italy share a bitter history. Unlike virtually every other African country, Ethiopia was never colonized, but it was invaded by Italy several times. My visit coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, when the Ethiopian army defeated the Italians — one of the very few non-Western countries ever to have trounced a Western one. The day is a national holiday and everyone I meet proudly tells me the story of how the Ethiopians sent the Italians packing.
For me, as a long-time devotee of Japan, there’s something familiar about the fierce independence of this country, one of the few non-Western nations to avoid the yoke of colonization, and one that maintains its proud culture intact.
In the museum at Aksum there’s fourth-century pottery, carved ivory, glass goblets, coins and beautiful painted icons. An elderly curator shows me a rock inscribed with ancient writing, then starts reading out loud, tracing the words with a gnarled finger. The first line reads from left to right, the next from right to left, and the letters too face one way then the other. The language is Sabaean, the precursor of Amharic, the modern-day Ethiopian script — for, long before the Aksum Empire, this was Saba — aka Sheba. Though there’s no firm historical evidence, Ethiopians believe that Aksum was the Queen of Sheba’s capital.
But Aksum is far from being just ancient ruins. It’s the home of the Ark of the Covenant, the heart of the Ethiopian church.
Across the road from the stelae is the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, the Virgin Mary, where the Ark is supposedly housed. Pilgrims swathed in scarves and shawls press their foreheads to the wall of the compound and kiss it. In the grounds men, tall and dignified with beards and turbans, carrying fly whisks and praying sticks, face the entrance to the cathedral and bow. (They pray standing up, sometimes for hours, and use the sticks to rest on.)
The cathedral is domed like a Russian Orthodox church. (The original cathedral is being renovated and this is a modern one built by Emperor Haile Selassie [1892-1975]in the 1960s.) It’s full of beautiful icons, some showing a black Virgin Mary and Christ. One, from the 16th century, depicts Emperor Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, on his way back to Ethiopia, walking through a landscape of palm trees accompanied by a retinue of robed, bearded men. One is bearing on his head an ornate casket: the Ark of the Covenant.
And there in the grounds is the chapel where the Ark is said to be. It’s a modest building, newly rebuilt, of gray stone, with blue-framed windows.
“Can I see the Ark?” I ask the deacon, a handsome man who, like many people here, speaks excellent English. I know the answer, but there’s no harm trying.
“No one sees it,” he says. “Not even we may see it. The only one who sees it is the custodian.”
As for the custodian, the deacon says he has never seen him either, as he never leaves the chapel.
It’s a mystery worthy of Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Of course, the Ark would lose its mystique if it were on view for everyone to see. But every church in Ethiopia has a model of it, called a tabot, hidden away in the inner sanctum.
In the streets outside, people robed like Old Testament figures herd flocks of sheep. Donkeys and camels amble by, oblivious to the crumbling ruins. Little blue three-wheeled tuk-tuks buzz around, their drivers eagerly touting for business as they churn up clouds of dust.
There are stelae and ruins everywhere around the town, evoking that ancient civilization centered here, once so grand and with the resources and energy to create these obelisks, yet now utterly vanished. Women wash their clothes in the so-called Queen of Sheba’s Bath, a huge lake of brown water, and I visit a mazelike ruin known as the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, with a brick oven and neatly fitted paving stones that floored what might have been the throne room. Cocks crow, donkeys bray, cows moo.
As I walk back through town in the cool of the evening I meet Samuel, aged 13, a round-faced solemn lad. He is on his way home from school in his purple uniform and shows me his maths and English homework. Everyone is busy. Children kick balls, people play table football, women weave baskets. In the shade men work treadle sewing machines while camels laden with firewood stretch their necks and snort disdainfully.
I spot a woman in a rather beautiful black blouse sitting with a tray full of cups against a tree with a leafy roof over her head. So I decide to stop for a coffee ceremony and take my place without a moment’s hesitation. Men sitting there, sipping coffee, ask if I am from Italy. When I say, “No, England,” they shout, “Good, good.” One tells me that he supports Manchester United, another is an Arsenal fan. A conversation about football ensues, so esoteric that I am hard put to keep up with it.
Some days later I set off for Lalibela. It’s 260 km to the south, back towards Addis — a quick hop by plane or a long day’s drive. The landscape is strikingly different from Aksum, with jagged mountains on the horizon and little round thatch-roofed houses, the same tawny pink as the soil.
In the hotel I’ve booked, I have my own round house, called a tukul, cunningly insulated with corrugated iron under the grass roof, and with an earthenware jug balanced upside down on the pinnacle. Inside it’s neat and clean, with tables, chairs, snow-white bed covers and a balcony offering a view of hills.
Lalibela is the home of those famed rock-hewn churches. Some time in the 12th century A.D., a saintly king named Lalibela decided to create a new Jerusalem, in both its physical and heavenly forms, here on Earth. According to legend, he was actually taken to heaven, where angels showed him a fabulous city of rock-hewn churches and commanded him to build a replica. There are 14 of these churches in Lalibela, and even place names around here are Biblical: the Jordan River, Calvary and the Tomb of Adam, among others.
A steep road winds up the hill but I don’t see any churches. I soon discover why: It’s because they’re below the ground, cut into — or out of — the rock.
I plod on up in the heat of the sun and cross a deep gully which my guidebook tells me is the Jordan River, then pay my entrance fee and clamber down a crevice in the rock. And there before me is a vast building, as big as a cathedral — it’s Bet Medhane Alem (bet means “saint”; medhane alem,“savior of the world”). It’s columned like Greek temples, but the columns are purely decorative, they don’t support the roof; and it’s beautifully carved so it seems to be made out of large stones laid one on top of the other, or layers of wood and stone. In fact, though, it’s a perfect illusion, because it’s actually carved directly out of the rock. As it’s surrounded by a walled courtyard, to be there is like standing at the bottom of a moat.
Inside the church, dim shafts of light beam through the window slots. I shine my flashlight around the frescoes and carvings on the walls. Dank carpets cover the stone floor and velvet drapes hide the inner sanctuary. The priest, dignified in white robes and a turban, shows me three hollows — graves prepared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Everything is symbolic, everything has a meaning. He brings an ornate iron cross out of the inner sanctum. An old man kneels and touches his head to the ground. Others sit in pools of light, poring over prayer books. There are drums lying around, to be beaten as part of a service. This is a holy place. Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians — believed to number around 35 million, alongside 25 million Muslims and 14 million Protestants — come here to worship, not to sightsee.
At Lalibela, there are two groups of churches. All are carved out of beautiful volcanic rock, the color of the soil, the red earth of Africa, and each is different and unforgettable. The churches of the northwestern group are close to each other, but even so it’s like solving a riddle getting from one to the next. I climb through tunnels and over precarious rock bridges and occasionally scramble up a rock face. I look for the Tomb of Adam, marked in my guidebook, but I can’t find it.
The churches contain icons of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity, and many also have paintings or reliefs of St. George and the Dragon, an important figure in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christianity. Legend has it that when King Lalibela had completed 13 churches, St. George suddenly appeared to him in full armor, on horseback, demanding to know why there was no church for him.
I leave the last of the northwestern group of churches and walk past a village of tukuls, like little round gingerbread houses. Over the crest of a hill I see before me a huge cross, flat to the ground, beautifully carved, which seems almost to be floating, surrounded by empty space. As I walk closer I see that it’s the flat roof of a four-story church, dug deep into the ground — in fact it’s the most magnificent of them all, Bet Giyorgis, the Church of St. George, built on the saint’s command.
I walk down a long winding tunnel to gain entrance. Inside there is an ancient icon of St. George and the Dragon and two mysterious padlocked chests. Outside, dried feet and legs are visible in a cave in the wall, the mummified remains of Syrian pilgrims who wanted to spend the rest of eternity in this holy place. There are also curved hollows in the wall — hoof marks made by St. George’s horse. Everything is symbolic, everything has a meaning.
On my way back I stop to photograph a threadbare brown sheep that’s tearing at a bit of dry shrub. A woman runs over, waving her hands. “You like?” “Yes, I like,” I say politely. “Very cheap,” she says, and I realize she thinks I want to buy it. When I gesture “No,” she runs after me, repeating, “Very cheap.” I tell her that sadly I can’t fit a sheep in my suitcase.
The following day I set off to tackle the second, less accessible southeastern group of churches. As I scramble up the hillside, I see a woman stooped under a huge bundle of firewood tied to her back, pressing her head to the tree beside the bridge that leads to the churches and kissing it.
I cross a narrow stone bridge high above a deep moat to the first church, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, then look for the second one, Bet Merkorios. The ancient and rather surly custodian there points me on my way to the third and I plunge into a dark tunnel, with no idea where it leads or how long it goes on for. And so it is that I come to be hovering nervously in front of two large holes in a cave wall above a precipitous drop.
In the end, I decide I’ll just have to miss this most finely carved of all the churches, Bet Amanuel (St. Emanuel), which was reputedly the royal family’s private chapel. So I reluctantly retrace my steps back through the dark tunnel. As I’m leaving I pass a church custodian and a policeman, who call out to me that I’m going the wrong way. They laugh hugely when I tell them I was too afraid to climb down. It turns out there’s a long way round. The policeman leads me there.
It’s well worth it. Bet Amanuel is a beautiful church, exquisitely carved, with windows featuring fretwork crosses and inset doors. Inside is a gorgeous icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, dark-skinned with huge dark eyes and haloes that glow like suns. The priest here has a particularly finely wrought cast-iron cross adorned with purple and gold scarves.
I look for the hole high on the cliff where I had stood, too afraid to climb down. Now I can see shallow steps but still no hand holds. I’m glad I came the long way round.
After the peace and quiet of Aksum and Lalibela and the slow pace of village life, it’s a shock to be back in the hurly-burly of Addis Ababa. It’s a big dusty city with a shopping center and, strung out along the roads, open stalls selling covetable handicrafts — icons, bracelets, shields — and there’s a well-developed area near the airport with glamorous stores, a spa and air-conditioned restaurants where I feel I could almost be back in Tokyo.
I visit the Ethnological Museum, which has displays of tribal customs and a wonderful collection of historical icons. The exhibits are fascinating but I’m intrigued by the splendid building itself, which was once the palace of Haile Selassie — who was formally known as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.
Above the glass cases, the Throne Room has yellow and white colonnaded walls and chandeliers. In Haile Selassie’s bedroom there is a huge bed with a blue velvet canopy and photographs of the bearded monarch, straight and proud with his chest covered in medals, and a bronze statue of the Lion of Judah, as befitted the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins by tradition from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The mirror has a bullet hole in it, the aftermath of a failed coup d’état. It was Haile Selassie’s good fortune to be out of the country at the time.
Unexpectedly, it occurs to me yet again, there are aspects of Ethiopia that remind me of Japan — its long history, proud people who were never colonized and the uniqueness of its culture. Until recently, it even had an emperor with a lineage stretching back to ancient times.
Brimming with history almost literally from the beginning of time, when Lucy walked the earth, with its heat and dust, sunshine and palm trees, its stories of Solomon, the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant, and possibly the oldest ongoing Christian church in the world, Ethiopia is endlessly fascinating. My only caution to visitors would be: Don’t forget your flashlight.
Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines offers a good discount on internal flights if you book your international flights with them. It has an excellent safety record. People of many nationalities, including British, Americans and Japanese, can buy a tourist visa for $20 on arrival at the airport. When you’re there: In Aksum, the Yeha Hotel (www.yehahotelaxum.com) is a bit rundown but the best in town. It has a wonderful terrace from which to watch the sun setting over the stelae. In Lalibela, Tukul Village (www.tukulvillage.com) is really wonderful and again the best in town. I ate mainly in hotels. In Lalibela, there’s a restaurant, Ben Abeba (www.benabeba.com/lalibela/Home.html), owned and run by Glaswegian Susan Aitchison and Lalibelian Habtamu Baye, that has excellent food and fabulous views. There are several fine restaurants in Addis, including Lucy in the grounds of the National Museum. Lesley Downer is a London-based writer and journalist who lived in Japan for many years. Her latest book, a novel, “The Samurai’s Daughter” (published in hardback as “Across a Bridge of Dreams”), is a historical romance set at the time of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. She would love to write a book set in Ethiopia.