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Ian Straughn

Islamic Archaeology

Archaeology and Religion

Islamic Landscapes

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Harry Anastopulos
Arabia and the Arabs: The Making of an Ethnos
Reading Response #1

After viewing both “Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth” and “Yemen: Land of the Queen of Sheba”, there are a number of differences worthy of note. As is often the danger with archaeology of the Near East region, the veneer of Biblical scripture and related myths seems to dominate the content of “Behind the Myth”. Too much of this film was reliant upon the assumption that the Queen of Sheba was, in fact, a real person who simply has yet to be unearthed from beneath the sands of modern Yemen. Although a very interesting extended retelling of the Sheba myth, this film leaves the viewer wondering more about how all of this stands up within the archaeological record. When archaeological discoveries were shown in the film, they were immediately associated in some way with Sheba (or Bilquis, as we are told the Arabs call her). Both the finding of the temple courtyard of some sort of fertility goddess and evidence of Sabaean pottery found in Jerusalem were explained as connected to Sheba. No inscriptions or any other substantive evidence that mention the Queen of Sheba were offered by the film to back up these claims. This film highlighted the fact that Merilyn Phillips-Hodgson was carrying on her brother’s quest to find a mythical queen, the evidence of whom may or may not be found. Mention of Sabaean trade and other archaeological tidbits were only mildly peppered throughout. It appears that this film is a fanciful diet version of what I’ve been taught is a proper archaeological endeavor, although it is entitled “Behind the Myth”; it failed to go beyond the myth.

The “Yemen” film, however, was very quick to mention that we have yet to find exclusive proof that the Queen of Sheba existed. This marked a clear break from the previous film. “Yemen” instead focused on the importance of trade, particularly in frankincense and salt. It then went through all of the stops along the trade route and detailed the unique features of each of these cities, while attempting to maintain a chronological progression of events from the rise and fall of the Sabaeans, Minaeans, Himyarites (to name a few) and their interactions with other peoples. Whereas “Behind the Myth” focused almost exclusively on the Queen of Sheba figure and attributed the lucrative trade and splendor of the Sabaeans to her, “Yemen” put forth a more complete analysis of this region of Arabia without the literary Sheba bias overshadowing the physical evidence.

I also felt that “Behind the Myth” short-changed the people of modern Yemen in that it presented them as having little connection to the glorious ancient civilization of the Queen of Sheba. The excavations by Phillips-Hodgson were always described as in danger of encroachment by the Yemenis and that the excavators needed constant protection from the modern inhabitants. The Arabs appear to be either bodyguards or potential threats. In “Yemen”, the modern peoples are more visibly shown as assisting in the excavations and having a viable connection with their pre-Islamic past. Children play among the ruins, while Arab archaeologists are quoted in the film. When describing ancient artifacts found, reference is made to “the skill of Yemeni goldsmithing”. What is instead witnessed in the first film is perhaps a function of the Orientalist perspective that we’ve encountered in the readings and discussed in class: in the former film, the ability of the Yemenis to share in the rediscoveries of their past seemed curbed in favor of a Biblical truth that seeks to represent their past for them. The latter film attempts to take a more neutral perspective by not simply relying on the Sheba myth and also by better presenting the connection that the Yemenis have with the ruins of the South Arabian past.

Zöe Agoos
Ian Straughn
February 12, 2007
Movie Notes – Reading Response #2

It was interesting to see the difference in style of the two documentaries (of sorts) because both are aimed at a layman audience. Clearly, Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth (2002) by the Discovery Channel was made for commercial television, and Yemen: Land of the Queen of Sheba (2000) by Alain Jomier was made as an anthropological video. What were the directors trying to accomplish with each of these videos? Queen of Sheba seemed to mix entertainment with information, drawing in the audience with the allure and mystery of the story of the Queen of Sheba, who most of us have at least heard of but perhaps know nothing about. The use of actors to play out the roles of the Queen and King Solomon adds to the dramatic effect. Then they add even more drama by telling the story of the initial excavation by Wendell Phillips, the original Indiana Jones, his departure when only halfway done because of rising unrest, and the emotional story of his sister, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, coming back to the site nearly 50 years later to finish for him after he has passed away. Yemen, on the other hand, uses the Queen of Sheba as a hook to draw people in, but the real purpose of the documentary is to give information about the history of Yemen, especially about the frankincense trade and the trade routes. It is more of a “here’s Yemen’s claim to fame—now let us tell you about who we really were, and what more was going on in our country”.

Queen of Sheba is about the intersection of archaeology and legend; Yemen is about ancient history and the intersection of commerce with politics and religion. There were a number of things that struck or interested me about each in turn, and for the sake of brevity I’ll list rather than fully describe them.

Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth (Discovery Channel, 2002)

The importance of the Marib dam: I would love to hear more about these! It is truly an incredible feat of engineering and construction.
The overlapping of all the holy books: the Old Testament of the Bible, the Quran, and the Ethiopian Holy Book. It’s fascinating that the Ethiopian Book has more of the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon than any of the others. Also, the interweaving of folklore with religion and history: e.g. the Arabian story of Solomon’s test to be sure that the Queen did not have the feet of a goat.
The overlapping of myth and history: regardless of how much of the legends around the Queen of Sheba are true, the fact that she was instrumental in the move to monotheism in her region is hugely significant.
The world is so complicated and intertwined that seemingly disconnected fields of life – like religion and trade – can have a profound effect on each other: the move to Christianity ruining the demand for frankincense and thus essentially the entire economy of southern Arabia.

Yemen: Land of the Queen of Sheba (2000)

It is fascinating – and a little frightening – how a huge (almost 10,000 hectare!) oasis can turn completely to desert. Why not try to build something like the Marib dam now? Is there not enough rainwater during the season anymore?
It is interesting to note the parallels of temple structure: the use of the (apparently) 4-5 freestanding Great Columns as the entrance to the holiest area of the temple. It was unclear though whether is this was solely in areas of Yemen in Southern Arabia, or if it extended farther into the Peninsula.
I love the complexity of re-using ancient materials in modern buildings, or even in less-ancient ruins (I’ve seen this in some Mayan sites as well). It is very bad for archaeologists because they lose the context of the artifact (principles of physical association – objects found together (may) go together – and its inferences of contemporaneity – objects found together are from the same time period, barring any disturbance or hierlooming). These concepts in archaeology can be especially important if there are inscriptions found on the artifacts that have been taken out of place and used in new contexts.
The process by which a modern city is built on top of an older or ancient one fascinates me: was there a break in the period of inhabitance? Or, like Vienna, does the old city simply sink into the sand forcing it to be constantly rebuilt by its inhabitants?
And on a completely personal note, I love that the story of the Queen of Sheba still has an element of mystery to it. For some reason legends are always disappointing to me when they are too concretely tied to the physical; it seems to diminish the power of the story. If the legend doesn’t belong specifically to anyone or anywhere, it belongs to everyone.

Eleanor Power
AE120 S12
1st Response Paper

There is an uneasiness among archaeologists about the way in which their research and discoveries are presented to the public. Detailed, complex volumes of work are condensed into headlines and television clips when the media deems it enticing enough; sites which took years to excavate are summed up in two sentences by tour guides. This synthesis of data is inevitable, and for the discipline to work past the problems inherent in it, constructive critiques of such attempts should be undertaken. Two documentaries on the archaeological past of Yemen and the story of the Queen of Sheba provide an opportunity to demonstrate the challenges of bringing archaeological material to the public.

Both documentaries, one produced for the Discovery Channel entitled “Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth” and the other a French production called “Yemen: Land of the Queen of Sheba,” attempt to capture the audience with reference to the fable of the Queen of Sheba. As told in the Old Testament, the Qur’an, and the Ethiopian holy book, as well as many local stories, the Queen of Sheba was thought to have lived during the time of King Solomon, around 950 to 850 BCE. This story has been connected with Sa’ba – a small kingdom with its center at the city of Marib in the southwest of Arabia that thrived on the trade routes coming through its domain and the agriculture of its oasis. While these two documentaries share this subject matter, their approaches are quite divergent, with remarkably little overlap. In the Discovery Channel piece, the legend of the Queen of Sheba and its authenticity are the constant focus – the stories are pieced together from the texts to create one total narrative, and archaeology is drawn on to give it a material base. The documentary attempts to flesh out the legend by locating it within the archaeological landscape. So, for example, the Maqam Bilqis is presented as a place where the Queen would have worshipped, and reenactments portray her there. The French documentary also uses the story of the Queen of Sheba as a draw to capture the audience, touting it in the title, the introduction, and the conclusion, but rarely in the body of the piece. The scale of the French documentary is much wider both temporally and spatially – not restrained to the life of the Queen, it instead presents the full archaeological history of Yemen, covering numerous kingdoms and following their history to the rise of Islam in the region. Both documentaries are very aware of the need to capture the interest of an audience and draw on the pervasive and evocative legend of the Queen of Sheba to do so – what is done with that story and how much it is allowed to shape the content of the documentaries is however very different for the two.

The images of the two documentaries are again surprisingly dissimilar. When discussing past societies, there is of course an absence of stock footage to be used, and other action must be used. The Discovery Channel documentary relies heavily on reenactments, with a beautiful, silent woman with striking eyes and ornate dress portraying the Queen of Sheba. The narrative that is constructed from the texts is recreated for the audience with the shimmer and drama of a Hollywood movie production, presenting a mysterious and exotic world. Conversely, in the French documentary, modern-day analogs of the activities beings discussed are shown – when discussing the ancient city of Shabwa images of a modern Yemeni town are used; when describing the salt or frankincense trade, people are shown harvesting them. While this approach may not be as exotifying as the reenactments, it is also problematic as it suggests a stagnancy of Yemeni culture, with very little changing over hundreds of years. Both these representations – past and present – of Yemen and its cultures are guilty to some degree of exotification and orientalism. This is more easily apparent in the Discovery Channel documentary, not only in the reenactments but also in the modern footage that is used. The presentation of the excavations of Wendell Phillips and his sister immediately evoke comparisons to Indiana Jones, as the brave archaeologist ventures into the uncharted wild, thwarting danger and overcoming all obstacles. This is not quite as clear in the French documentary, where there is a greater sense of cultural relativism in the portrayal of Yemen. The modern footage used is generally done with respect, and the presence of the head of the Department of Antiquities as one of the ‘talking heads’ in the documentary allows some space for the Yemeni perspective. Both documentaries form images of past and present life in Yemen, and unsurprisingly end up with a simplified and probably somewhat erroneous representation.

These documentaries have to struggle to keep an audience involved and entertained while also conveying accurate information of the past societies of Yemen. The Discovery Channel documentary sacrifices too much to the drama of the story of the Queen of Sheba. Excessive priority is given to the narrative, with the archaeology merely used to flesh out and embellish, and the frame is simply too focused. The French documentary is able to compellingly communicate much more, creating a much richer and more complete picture of Yemen’s cultural past. There may still be flaws in the presentation, but as was stated in the introduction, information must inevitably be condensed and simplified. The goal of such documentaries should be to educate the public, and their content should not be defined solely by the flashy gimmick that can capture the audience.

Reem Yusuf
AE120, Arabia and the Arabs:
“Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth” and “Yemen: Land of the Queen Sheba”

The true story of Queen Sheba remains vague till this day despite the written resources. The texts relate at the central theme although they narrate the story of Sheba in diverse ways, The question is whether the excavations in the assumed location of the Kingdom of Sheba were based on materialistic evidence, on The Holly books and history, or on the tradition of folkloric legendary story telling? Both movies “Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth” and “Yemen: Land of the Queen Sheba” approaches the same subject in different ways. The comparison of these two movies touches a fundamental aspect that archaeological documentaries endure which is the characterization of archaeological films. This categorization problem goes back to the “raison d'être” of archaeological excavations, Nevertheless, the similarities of both movies lay in the utilization of contemporary Yemen as a source of confirmation of the story of Sheba, as well as a live example of simultaneously linking and separating the past and the present.

The story of Sheba is mentioned in different contexts in the Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and in the Ethiopian history. The excavations of Sheba’s site took place based on the information from these Holly and historical books. The title of the film “Queen of Sheba: Behind the Myth”, indicates the association between Sheba and the Myth, similar to the connection; presented in the film, between the excavation and its incentives. This excavation as indicated was based on the mythology of Sheba and the American archaeologist’s dream to proof this story. However from my experience, prior excavating, the location must be studied historically, myth logically, and academically in addition to studying the surrounding sites. In modern times, technology helps in determining the rich sites from the ones lacking archaeological remains. The excavation I participated in was based on visible remains in the site, written sources, past excavations in the nearby area, and tales that the local people passed on through storytelling. This method was made clear in the second movie “Yemen: Land of the Queen Sheba.”

Film and documentary programs are a way of informing and entertaining. The animated images create sequences that would appeal to the viewer’s imagination. Are these two archaeological films to be placed in the filmmaking entertainment genre or the academic documentation genre? The first movie is to be considered a film and not a documentary because it contains the characteristics of a film. It conveys the core idea of the film itself and the superficial artificial story that helps creating sequence and excitement, which is usually linked to the main theme. However, This movie gives priority to the dramatization of the artificial story to the degree that the main archaeological theme loses its presence on the screen. The technique of the filmmaking was produced to exemplify mystery and exoticness through the close ups and angle shots of the characters and the props. The customs, makeup, lights, and music play essential roles in the exaggeration of the dramatic scenes. It is a historical and mythological film and not an archaeological one, because it uses archaeology as a consolidation for the history and legend without any emphasis on the scientific or academic aspect of the excavations. The idea of mixing drama, archaeology, and history with documentations of modern Yemen creates truth in the story, for it gives a real representation from diverse directions and offers a chance for imagination. However, The exaggeration eliminated the balance of the movie and this reduced the connection between the diverse genres.

“Yemen: Land of the Queen Sheba” focuses on the archaeological documentation of the site and the excavation. Unlike the first movie by Discovery Channel, “Land of the Queen Sheba” takes into consideration the mythological, historical, academic, and cultural aspects in the representation of the story. These aspects support the existence of the Queen but some do oppose to the details of the story. This movie is more of a visual and narrative lecture than of a film that creates curiosity and excitement to the viewer, due to the lack of artistic and technical creativity. The illustration of Modern Yemen in both movies creates an incomplete vision of the present. These representations of the people of Yemen and their cultural support the story of Sheba. Images are open for various interpretations and in these movies film and photography was used to link the present to the past. The first movie presents Yemen from an oriental perspective. The second shows the Budwins of Yemen from one angle forgetting the rest of the population and the development they have reached to from Queen Sheba’s time to the present day.

An archaeological film is like an archaeological excavation; an excavation is based on former studies and evidence with myths and predictions, and a film is based on knowledge and technique with imagination and creativity. By balancing these aspects the viewer would receive the true story and the archaeologist would proof his theory.