Sample text for Sheba : through the desert in search of the legendary queen / Nicholas Clapp.


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Counter Prologue
On a sleet-streaked november afternoon I ducked into the New York
Public Library, collapsed my umbrella--broken-spoked on the dash from
the subway--sloshed up a grand marble staircase, and turned down a
dark hallway leading to the Oriental Division. ("Oriental," in the
nineteenth century"s world-view, meant anything to the east of
Greece, as in "We Three Kings of Orient Are . . .") In the hallway,
the division"s recent titles could be accessed on two computer
terminals glowing green on a table to the right. To the left, shelves
of black volumes recorded older entries, typed on antique machines
and even handwritten. Both sources had pages of entries
beginning: "Queen of . . ."
Queen of Bubbles, Queen of Frogs. Queens of Sorrows, Spies,
the Swamp, Tears, Tomorrow, the Universe, Rage, and Ruin.
But on this damp day, one entry shone, the one I was looking
for: the Queen of Sheba. Further crosschecking would pull up hundreds
of entries bearing on her life--if she did ever live--and times.
I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the pursuit of
the queen of Sheba would take me from Canterbury Cathedral to a Czech
alchemist"s tower. I would venture to the Orient of old and to
Jerusalem, the city where Sheba appeared before King Solomon, a city
so at the crux of Western religion that it was long held to be the
center of the world.
Curiosity, that old cat-killer, would prod and beckon me on,
through the cobbled streets of ancient caravansaries, through grassy
green African highlands, across a stormy Strait of Tears, and into
the trackless red sands of the Rub" al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of
Arabia.
The desert, I"ve found, is a good place for the curious, for
even on a short walk you can expect the unexpected, a glimpse of
something you"ve never seen before, be it an oddly striped
caterpillar, a rare ghost flower or, as I once found in California"s
Mojave, a barely tarnished fighter plane abandoned since World War
II. This really doesn"t make sense. One imagines the surprises of the
world of nature and of man to be hidden in remote alpine canyons and
mist-shrouded jungles. And certainly such places have their share of
the unexpected. But it"s in the desert--open, apparently lifeless,
with few places to conceal anything--where secrets, perhaps the best
secrets, are to be found. Or may still lie buried.
On again, off again, for a decade and more, I would seek
Sheba in lands (like her?) exotic, sensuous, even sinister. Would the
mists of her myth dissolve, and a real queen of a real country step
forth? Or, upon investigation, might she prove to be Sheba, Queen of
Illusion? I had no idea. But on a winter"s day in New York, I scanned
volume after worn volume and was warmed by the promise of adventure
offered by Alexander Kinglake, a Victorian "traveling gent":
There comes a time for not dancing quadrilles, not sitting in
pews . . . and now my eyes would see the Splendor and Havoc of the
East.
May, 2000

Copyright © 2001 by Nicholas Clapp


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Sheba, Queen of Legends, Clapp, Nicholas Travel Middle East, Middle East Description and travel