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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


Nicholas Clapp

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To purchase Sheba

Title: Sheba
Author: Nicholas Clapp
Genre: Travel
Written: 2001
Length: 313 pages
Availability: Sheba - US
Sheba - UK
Sheba - Canada
Die Königin von Saba - Deutschland
  • Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen
  • Includes four appendices:
    1. The Names of Sheba
    2. Chronology of the Sabean (Sheban) State
    3. Demon Sheba
    4. Alchemical Sheba
  • Includes 31 photographs and numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting stories from wild places, decently tied together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A 1/5/2001 Michael Harris

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)here's more to this book than adventure stories and vivid descriptions of the Middle East and Africa. It makes a significant contribution to the scholarly debate about whether the queen of Sheba existed -- and whether Solomon was the great king of the Bible, a minor hill-country chieftain or a myth concocted by Israelites newly returned from Babylonian exile, and in need of a grand and coherent national story. (...) Clapp makes us admire the vision and ingenuity of these long-ago people, just as he astounds us with descriptions of Coptic Christian churches in Ethiopia." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A filmmaker and lecturer on archaeology, Nicholas Clapp has travelled far and wide in search of material. The story of the Queen of Sheba caught his attention, and he found there a marvelous mystery to try to puzzle out -- providing also a marvelous excuse to travel to exotic locales in search of traces of her.
       A biblical figure (I Kings 10, II Chronicles 9), there is some debate as to how much of an historical figure the Queen of Sheba actually was. There are many stories around her (most more interesting than the fairly bland biblical account), but there seemed to be little other proof of the existence of the anonymous queen (she was queen of Sheba, and her name is not given). Clapp mentions that some believed "her encounter with King Solomon must have happened (...) because as biblical tales go, it was so dull".
       Clapp introduces the various legends and lore around the queen and how she has been seen through the ages. He examines her influence on art and music, among much else, and follows the transformations of the image of the queen. Some modern-day traces are less than useful:

A consumer survey determined "Sheba" the best possible name for a cat food. In "A Thing called Love," country singer Bonnie Raitt demurs, "Baby, you know I ain't no queen of Sheba."
       The asides are fun, but as to the (possibly) historical figure no clear picture emerges -- not even a very precise one of where and when she might have ruled. Over the years Clapp accumulates more and more material, and on various excursions tries to track down traces of her, preferably firm archaeological evidence.
       The Queen of Sheba is the goal, but the travels are most of the fun. Jerusalem is the first major destination, and in leading the reader through the back alleys Clapp provides a neat description of behind-the-scenes everyday religious life in the place that is holy to so many.
       There is a foray into Saudi Arabia -- interesting because there are few accounts of travel there, as so few foreigners are permitted to roam the Saudi countryside. Damascus and Palmyra (Syria) offer a bit more to go on (and a neat sandstorm livens things up), but the meat of the story comes in Yemen.
       Yemen -- "you-never-know-what's-going-to-happen-next-and-it-might-be-scary Yemen", as Clapp calls it -- is not a leading (or, indeed, almost any sort of) tourist destination. Kidnapping of foreigners is popular sport, tribalism is pervasive, the government has limited influence in many outlying regions -- and it is physically largely inhospitable. Not the best place to vacation. But there is a great deal of history buried here, and that was what Clapp went in search of.
       His is a fairly fun adventure there, presenting a slice of modern life (and unusual local politics) rarely seen. The archaeology is quite interesting too, although the ancient and largely uncertain history can be confusing.
       Another trip takes Clapp to Ethiopia, where the legend of the Queen of Sheba also figures. The famous churches of Lalibela, an ascent into the Debra Damo monastery (reachable only by climbing "a sixty-foot rope dangling from a narrow ledge"), and the holy city of Aksum are all interesting places, and Clapp's short adventures there are nicely presented.
       Clapp is then also tempted to return to Yemen -- having failed to reach the most promising destination, Sirwah, on the first try -- and so he travels by dhow from Djibouti, another harrowing (though mercifully relatively brief) trip. He does make it to Sirwah, there neatly tying up most of his Sheban researches -- though there is always room for more, as in the fourth appendix, when alchemical Sheba surfaces in Prague .....

       Sheba is a fairly nice mix of history and lore. It offers scenic locales fairly vividly presented and tales of modern travel in remote places where time often seems to have stood still (at least until the local air force start bombing the place ... ).
       Clapp also presents as much -- or perhaps more -- about the Queen of Sheba as one might want to know. He suggests numerous possibilities as to who she might have been and where and when she might have ruled, and follows various historical and archaeological trails, suggesting what is plausible and what is unlikely. The mix -- of travelogue and semi-scholarly account -- in the book is sometimes uneasy. There also seems no scrap of information that Clapp is not willing to share. A tighter focus might have been preferable -- though there is something to be said for his all-inclusive approach.
       It is an entertaining book. The places he visits are fascinating, and the history quite interesting -- a lot of rich material, which he presents fairly well.

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Sheba: Reviews: Lalibela: Debra Damo: Yemen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nicholas Clapp is a filmmaker and lecturer on archaeology.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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