The Home of the Queen of Sheba

Thursday 1st February 2018

The Home of the Queen of Sheba

The fascinating title attracted several guests, even on a grim January night, to hear Lerryn WI’s guest speaker, Mary Jones, describe her time in the Yemen.

It was 1994 when Mary visited the country, and the books, maps and photographs she shared with us were of that era. This gave the whole evening an elegiac quality, because the beauty of the pictures we were shown had in our minds a counterpoint in the recent all too vivid images of the heavy bombing there and the massive destruction that has been inflicted. Those lovely red sandstone buildings decorated in the traditional style with white lime mortar have in many cases ceased to exist, as have the colourful, broad-beamed boats in the Red Sea harbour of Hodeida, now so badly bombed that not even aid can get in.

Mary remembered with pleasure the narrow streets and market stalls in the medieval centre of cities such as Taiz, where waist-high piles of turmeric were on display - alongside equally lavish heaps of plastic shoes from China. Timid overseas visitors were advised that evening visits to the souk were perfectly safe, as there was “no tradition of theft in the Yemen”, and this did appear then to be the case.

The Romans’ term for the Yemen translates as ‘Happy Arabia’, and the country has – or had - many natural advantages. In contrast with its arid Saudi neighbour, the temperate hills of Yemen support the growth of a wide range of grains in addition to fruit such as grapes and, further south, citrus. With a population in those days of about 25 million in a country the size of Spain, there were sufficient people to do the hard work of farming and irrigation without being enough to outrun the local resources.

It would be a mistake, though, to think of the Yemenis as a race of contented, hard-working farmers. They have skills and a great capacity for innovation in many other areas too. Their dam at Marib, the oldest in the world, was built 2,500 BCE, providing water for 40 square miles of cultivation, and the coastal town of Zabid in 1300 saw the development of the astrolabe and the magnetic compass as well as algebra.

It was close to the Marib Dam that the Queen of Sheba had her residence, on the busy Frankincense Road. Both frankincense and myrrh were produced in Yemen and the transport of frankincense linked civilisations from Rome to China, just as the Myrrh Road, supplying essentials for mummification, created and maintained links with Egypt.

What Mary gave us glimpses of was a thriving, successful world – and knowing what has become of it made us sad and thoughtful.


Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

January 2018

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