The ancient kingdom of Saba ruled over
the lands of southern Arabia, centered
in modern day Yemen. Saba is perhaps
better known as Sheba, the Hebrew word
for the kingdom, whose famous Queen was
recounted as having visited Solomon in
the pages of the Old Testament.
Biblical accounts speak of the wealth of
this ancient civilization of traders and
merchants, and modern archaeological
excavations confirm these reports.
Ruins of fortresses and walled towns are
evident and remnants of their extensive
irrigation system that turned the desert
into a paradise still cover the land.
Although gold and silver deposits were
present, the chief source of their vast
wealth was derived from their veritable
monopoly of two of the most coveted
materials in ancient times: frankincense
and myrrh, resinous gums obtained from
certain trees that only grow in Southern
Arabia and were literally worth their
weight in gold. Perhaps their greatest
accomplishment was the Great Dam of
Marib, a monumental construction that
brought water from the mountains both to
the city and to the crop fields. The
dam was in continual use (accounting for
timely repairs) until the 6th Century
A.D. and its ultimate destruction is
detailed in the Koran as the end of the
old world and a turning point in
history. However, the civilization that
created this wonder fell apart long
before the damn did.
This impressive bronze sculpture of a
standing man is a testament both to the
wealth and the artistry of the Sabeans.
Bronze was a precious material in these
days and this substantial sculpture
would have been worth a small fortune.
This fact alone suggest that this work
would have been commissioned either by a
wealthy individual of the Sabean upper
classes or, more likely, by a prosperous
religious institution. Certain
stylistic features, specifically the
corkscrew rows of hair and the bodily
proportions, are comparable to similar
works dating from the 6th Century B.C.
Other details, such as the stern facial
features, rigid stance, and the stylized
fold of the himation parallel aesthetic
developments in Archaic Greek and
Cypriot art, revealing that these
cultures, while they were all linked by
trade, also exchanged artistic ideas.
This sculpture most likely represents a
priest performing a ritual offering,
notice the hilt of the knife tucked into
his himation just below his large
nipple. Might this work depict a priest
about to undertake a ceremonial
sacrifice honoring the gods? Perhaps
this work stood inside an ancient temple
where the bronze priest performed his
sacrifice for all eternity.