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TO SEPT. 11
The Queen of Sheba may very well be a fictional character, invented by the Israelite propagandists who wrote (and rewrote) the books of Kings. But Sheba, or Saba, was a real place, a South Arabian kingdom made rich by control of trade routes and the booming market for frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, contemporary interpretations suggest that Saba’s ancient capital was far grander than Solomon’s Jerusalem. Archaeologists have only recently begun to unearth the remains of Saba, Qataban, and Himyar, three nations that prospered from around 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. in what in now Yemen. This exhibition is the first major international one to present the remains of the incense kingdoms, which include stone funerary statues, architectural ornaments, and inscriptions in Sabean, a Semitic language related to Arabic, Ethiopian, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Despite such connections, the earlier proto-Yemenite sculptures are distinctive: blocky body shapes, yet with surprisingly realistic renderings of faces. As the Hellenistic works in the latter galleries reveal, South Arabia’s city-states eventually came under the influence of Greece and Rome, with imperial ships supplanting the peninsula’s camels. (Beyond the period covered in this show, the region went into decline after Christianity’s preference for quick burial over elaborate cremation undercut the market for incense.) These artifacts have their singular aspects, but what’s most interesting is how many links they reveal to other cultures of the time. Although located on the wrong side of the great Arabian wastes, Saba and its sibling lands were remarkably well-connected. The show is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, to Sunday, Sept. 11, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-3200. (Mark Jenkins)