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The Queen of Sheba 

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2005 (UK)  »

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Sheba, Queen of the Desert
5 August 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

It's as much a travelogue as it is Wood's usual attempt to tie myth to history. Of course Wood has taken trips before but always to relatively well-known places like Istanbul or Stratford-upon-Avon. In this one, he and his crew venture into the stark and depopulated areas of Ethiopia and the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. You get view of Adis Ababa in Ethiopia. That's about the most nearly civilized part of the trip. And these scenes are in themselves informative. The city isn't nearly as shabby as I'd imagined it to be, although I wouldn't want to spend a vacation there. It's when Wood follows the millennium-old caravan routes and finally reaches what he's determined to have been the capitol of Sheba that it gets really spooky. After miles and miles of bare desert, he finds himself in a tiny settlement of crumbling ruins where a scant handful of people still live. This is the place to go if you're desperate for peace and quiet.

Sheba is mentioned in the Old Testament, very briefly, as a visitor who is entertained by King Solomon. More is made of her visit in the Koran. Evidently she received a warm visit because she returns to Sheba pregnant. That's about all we know of the Queen of Sheba -- she arrives in glory, is treated like royalty, and gets what she wants. I think my ex wife may be channeling her.

I found this episode kind of interesting. There is, as usual, the framework of Wood's scholastic efforts. Once more he dons the white glove and runs his forefinger down the brittle page of an ancient manuscript. He translates languages you and I never heard of. But the imprint that's left behind is a little like what you get from reading all of Joseph Campbell in one sitting. What you thought was going to be a star turns out to be a nebula.

But, okay. As all anthropologists know, there is often more to be learned from visiting the place and engaging in encounters -- eating the local food, observing the natives in their routines, traveling the roads -- than from simply reading about a place. A few years ago, the United States was heavily involved in fighting in Iraq. Arguments about the nature of the conflict flew back and forth. But, in many ways, I learned more from an inexpensive walk through Baghdad by Rachel Maddow and Richard Engel than I ever learned from reading about the city. The couple chatted as they strolled along the streets and Engel explained what they were looking at. I'd thought the place to be bullet ridden, but the couple of reporters looked safer than they might have been in some neighborhoods of New York City.

This program carried the same visual quality. Impressions were generated by images as much as by contrived explanations. The Queen of Sheba may not occupy much of our mythological life space but pursuing her yields its own rewards.


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