The kingdoms of ancient South Arabia

Calcite-alabaster stela (ANE 130880)

While there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of the 'Queen of Sheba', there is considerable information about Saba, the powerful incense trading kingdom where she is supposed to have resided. Saba, with its capital at Maryab (later known as Marib), was the oldest and most important of the South Arabian kingdoms, which also included Qataban, Ma'in, Hadramawt and Himyar. The Awwam temple, popularly known as the Mahram Bilqis (Temple of Sheba) and fronted by eight monolithic pillars, is the most famous of all the pre-Islamic temples of Southern Arabia. It is currently being excavated by the American Foundation for the Study of Man. Under its most famous ruler Karib'il Watar, who reigned about 700-680 BC, the Sabaean kingdom stretched over most of south-west Arabia.

Saba is first recorded in monumental inscriptions that date from the eighth century BC, although recent evidence suggests that the kingdom may have had its beginnings as early as the tenth century BC, a date which is often given for the reign of King Solomon. Although some suggest this lends credence to the Biblical story, it is not certain whether overland or marine trade links between Saba and Judah could have been established this early. Solomon's temple and royal palace in Jerusalem have not been discovered and some scholars suggest that frankincense and myrrh were not used by the Israelites before the seventh century BC.

It has been suggested that the seemingly anachronistic elements of the Biblical story may be explained by the fact that the passage was written down hundreds of years after the tenth century. The later writers may have wanted to associate the figure of Solomon with a female counterpart who embodied the riches of Saba, the most powerful incense trading kingdom known at the time in which they were writing.