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The Ethiopian Gold Mine that may have supplied the Queen of Sheba with her riches

The Ethiopian Gold Mine that may have supplied the Queen of Sheba with her riches


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Ever wondered where the Queen of Sheba got her gold from? Sudan and Ethiopia are both in the region of what was the kingdom of Sheba, and both have ancient mines. In fact, the Asosa zone of Ethiopia could contain the oldest gold mine in the world at 6000 years old. Some geologists have argued that this zone is still rich with the precious metal. But whether this is the region where the Queen of Sheba sourced her gold remains speculation. In a region where prospects for gold deposits still abound, where does one start a search for an ancient gold mine? Well, a good prospect was found during a 2012 excavation in Ethiopia, when a team of British archaeologists may very well have found the answer.

The Queen of Sheba is famous in Biblical legend as the ruler who visited Jerusalem with loads of gold in order to impress King Solomon. Little else is known about her but the tale of her love affair with King Solomon inspired later mystical medieval literature in which she is described as possessing divine wisdom. She was also depicted in Turkish and Persian art and was featured in Handel's oratorio Solomon. She is also mentioned in various treatises in the Kabbala and her story was later the subject of Hollywood movies such as Solomon and Sheba of 1959. The legend states that she taunted the king with riddles and that he wooed her in return. Their child, Menelik, was the ancestor of the kings of Abyssinia.

Sheba was an ancient realm that existed during the 8 th Century BC. It lasted for a thousand years and included what is now modern Ethiopia and Yemen. The realm traded in incense and prospered because of its links with Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. Its famous Queen is mentioned both in The Koran and The Bible, which mentions that the Queen of Sheba arrived in Jerusalem “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones ... Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices.”

The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Apollonio di Giovanni ( Wikimedia Commons ). Note: Racial depictions are not accurate as the Queen of Sheba.

The Biblical stories of Sheba were written in the Iron Age. Several figures in the Bible are referred to as Sheba, one of them being a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. However, the name Sheba is actually a derivation of the Arabic ‘Shaba’, also known as the Sabaean kingdom. The story of its famous Queen appears in the Biblical book of Kings . Its capital was the city of Marib but the kingdom declined after a long civil war between numerous dynasties who each claimed the throne.

In 2012, a team of British archaeologists discovered an enormous gold mine in northern Ethiopia, along with a nearby battlefield and the ruins of a temple. The site is located on the high Gheralta plateau and the archaeologists knew it was once part of the realm of Sheba from the 20ft stone stele carved with the image of the sun and crescent moon – the emblem of Sheba.

  • The Legendary Queen of Sheba and Her Iconic Visit with King Solomon
  • Tracing the origins of a mysterious ancient Queen of Ethiopia
  • The Intricately Carved Tiya Megaliths of Ethiopia

Landscape in Gheralta Massif, Tigray Region, Ethiopia ( Wikimedia Commons )

“One of the things I've always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths” archaeologist Louise Schofield told The Guardian shortly after the discovery. “The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba's mines is extraordinary.”

Despite being warned the rock was the home of an enormous cobra, Schofield crawled beneath it where she discovered an inscription in Sabaean, an ancient language that would once have been spoken by the Queen of Sheba herself. On a mound nearby, the archaeologists discovered the ruins of an ancient temple that may have been dedicated to the moon god of Sheba. The team also discovered human bones on the site of an ancient battlefield nearby.

The ancient mine is believed to have once belonged to the Queen of Sheba. It was situated on a hilltop and entered by a shaft which is buried some 4 feet below the surface. The archaeologists found a human skull in the entrance, where chisel marks are still visible.

It may indeed once have supplied the Queen of Sheba’s treasure house.

Featured image: The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, painting by Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Robin Whitlock


Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba (Hebrew: מלכת שבא ‎ Arabic: ملكة سبأ ‎, romanized: Malikat Saba Ge'ez: ንግሥተ ሳባ ) is a figure first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. In the original story, she brings a caravan of valuable gifts for the Israelite King Solomon. This account has undergone extensive Jewish, Islamic and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Middle East. [1]

Modern historians identify Sheba with the South Arabian kingdom of Saba in present-day Yemen. The queen's existence is disputed among historians. [2]


Archaeologists strike gold in quest to find Queen of Sheba's wealth

A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory.

Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: "One of the things I've always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba's mines is extraordinary."

An initial clue lay in a 20ft stone stele (or slab) carved with a sun and crescent moon, the "calling card of the land of Sheba", Schofield said. "I crawled beneath the stone – wary of a 9ft cobra I was warned lives here – and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken."

On a mound nearby she found parts of columns and finely carved stone channels from a buried temple that appears to be dedicated to the moon god, the main deity of Sheba, an 8th century BC civilisation that lasted 1,000 years. It revealed a victory in a battle nearby, where Schofield excavated ancient bones.

Although local people still pan for gold in the river, they were unaware of the ancient mine. Its shaft is buried some 4ft down, in a hill above which vultures swoop. An ancient human skull is embedded in the entrance shaft, which bears Sabaean chiselling.

Sheba was a powerful incense-trading kingdom that prospered through trade with Jerusalem and the Roman empire. The queen is immortalised in Qur'an and the Bible, which describes her visit to Solomon "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones . Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices."

Although little is known about her, the queen's image inspired medieval Christian mystical works in which she embodied divine wisdom, as well as Turkish and Persian paintings, Handel's oratorio Solomon, and Hollywood films. Her story is still told across Africa and Arabia, and the Ethiopian tales are immortalised in the holy book the Kebra Nagast.

Hers is said to be one of the world's oldest love stories. The Bible says she visited Solomon to test his wisdom by asking him several riddles. Legend has it that he wooed her, and that descendants of their child, Menelik – son of the wise – became the kings of Abyssinia.

Schofield will begin a full excavation Schofield said that as she stood on the ancient site, in a rocky landscape of cacti and acacia trees, it was easy to imagine the queen arriving on a camel, overseeing slaves and elephants dragging rocks from the mine.

once she has the funds and hopes to establish the precise size of the mine, whose entrance is blocked by boulders.

Tests by a gold prospector who alerted her to the mine show that it is extensive, with a proper shaft and tunnel big enough to walk along.

Schofield was instrumental in setting up the multinational rescue excavations at the Roman city of Zeugma on the Euphrates before it was flooded for the Birecik dam. Her latest discovery was made during her environmental development work in Ethiopia, an irrigation, farming and eco-tourism project on behalf of the Tigray Trust, a charity she founded to develop a sustainable lifestyle for 10,000 inhabitants around Maikado, where people eke out a living from subsistence farming.

Sean Kingsley, archaeologist and author of God's Gold, said: "Where Sheba dug her golden riches is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. Timna in the Negev desert is falsely known as 'King Solomon's Mines', but anything shinier has eluded us.

"The idea that the ruins of Sheba's empire will once more bring life to the villages around Maikado is truly poetic and appropriate. Making the past relevant to the present is exactly what archaeologists should be doing. "


Au-some potential?

The Asosa zone geology is characterised by various kinds of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that are more than 600 million-years-old. The region has been intensely deformed by geological forces, resulting in everything from kilometre-long faults to tiny cracks known as veins which are only centimetres in length.

Some of these veins contain quartz, and it is mainly here that the region’s gold accumulated between 615m and 650m years ago – along with silver and various other minerals. The gold came from molten materials deep within the Earth finding their way upwards during a process known as subduction, where tectonic forces drive oceanic crust beneath a continent. This is comparable to the reasons behind gold deposits in island arcs like some of the ones in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Our field observations and panning suggest that gold should be generally abundant across the Asoza zone – both in quartz veins but also elsewhere in the schist and pegmatite rocks in which they are located. We also see signs of substantial graphite deposits, which are important for everything from touch-screen tablets to lithium-ion batteries.

There is undoubtedly much more world-class gold within this area than has already been discovered, pointing to a promising source of income for the government for years to come – much of the region remains unexplored, after all. It probably is no exaggeration to say that Ethiopia’s gold potential could rival South Africa’s, which would put it somewhere around the top five gold producing nations in the world.

View across the gold-bearing schist rocks of the Asosa zone, Benishangul-Gumuz. Owen Morgan

There are still some substantial challenges, however. Dealing with governmental red tape can be difficult. In an area like the Asosa zone there are dangerous wildlife to avoid, such as venimous snakes, baboons and even monkeys. The vegetation also becomes forbiddingly wild during wet seasons.

It is also important to strike up good working relationships with local inhabitants, showing the utmost respect to local cultures – it’s the ethical way to operate, and failing to do so can make life harder with the authorities in the capital. This includes the need to preserve the natural beauty of the region gold mining already has a very bad international reputation for environmental damage.

With the right approach, however, western Ethiopia will be a literal gold mine that could bring economic benefit to the region. What the Queen of Sheba may have known 3,000 years ago, the modern world is finally rediscovering today.


King Solomon may have wanted her land

There's a lot of weirdness around King Solomon getting it on with the queen. There's no solid proof that it happened, and a lot of it is told through folklore. But one thing that would make total sense is the political intrigue around the Queen of Sheba's land. After all, folks were constantly going to war over territory. And King Solomon may have been wise, but even he might have fallen for all that potential gold and incense.

According to Jewish Encyclopedia, Jewish legends describe the land of Sheba as incredibly rich in both population and wealth. Heaven allegedly provided the wreaths the people wore, as well as the water. On top of that, the dust of the country was said to be more valuable than gold. So as the story goes, King Solomon commanded the Queen of Sheba to come see him under threat of invasion (from beasts and demons, of all things). She responded by saying that not only would she come, but she would show up in three years instead of the normal seven it would take for her to travel to Jerusalem. Thus began the one-upmanship-turned-seduction between the two of them.


Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba is the monarch mentioned in the Bible and then in later works who travels to Jerusalem to experience the wisdom of King Solomon (c. 965-931 BCE) of Israel first-hand. The queen is first mentioned in I Kings 10:1-13 and in II Chronicles 9:1-12 in the Bible, then in the later Aramaic Targum Sheni, then the Quran, and finally the Ethiopian work known as the Kebra Negast later writings featuring the queen, all religious in nature, come basically from the story as first told in the Bible. There is no archaeological evidence, inscription, or statuary supporting her existence outside of these texts.

The region of Sheba in the Bible has been identified as the Kingdom of Saba (also sometimes referred to as Sheba) in southern Arabia but also with Ethiopia in East Africa. In the biblical tale, the queen brings Solomon lavish gifts and praises his wisdom and kingdom before returning to her country. Precisely where she returned to, however, is still debated as the historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE) famously identified her as a queen of Ethiopia and Egypt but the probable (and most commonly accepted) dates for Solomon argue in favor of a monarch from southern Arabia even though no such monarch is listed as reigning at that time.

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Ethiopia or Arabia

The debate concerning whether the queen came from Ethiopia or Arabia has been going on for centuries and will no doubt continue, even though there is no hard evidence said queen even existed. Those who argue for an Ethiopian queen claim that she reigned over the Kingdom of Axum but Axum did not exist during the reign of Solomon nor even when the Book of Kings was composed (c. 7th/6th century BCE). Axum only existed as a political entity c. 100 - c. 950 CE. It supplanted or evolved from an earlier kingdom known as D'mt which was influenced by the Sabean culture of southern Arabia.

D'mt flourished between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE from its capital at Yeha but little else is known about the culture. Sabean influence is evident in the temple to the moon-god Almaqah, the most powerful Sabean deity, which still stands. Scholars are divided on how much the Sabeans influenced the culture of D'mt but the existence of the temple and linguistic similarities indicate a significant Sabean presence in D'mt.

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This should not be surprising since Saba was a growing power c. 950 BCE and the wealthiest kingdom in southern Arabia c. 8th century BCE through 275 CE when it fell to the invading Himyarites. Whether D'mt was originally a Sabean colony is disputed, and the claim has largely been discredited but the proximity of the two kingdoms and obvious Sabean presence in D'mt suggest a close interaction. Saba was the trading hub in southern Arabia for the Incense Routes, and it would certainly make sense for them to have established friendly relations, if not a colony, just across the Red Sea.

It is possible, then, that the Queen of Sheba was a Sabean ruler of D'mt and that her legend then became associated with Ethiopia by the time Flavius Josephus was writing. It is more probable, however, that the association of Saba with D'mt led later historians, including Josephus, to claim she journeyed from Ethiopia when she actually came from Arabia. There is also, of course, the probability that she never journeyed from anywhere to anywhere because she never existed but the persistence of her legend argues for an actual historical figure.

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The Queen in the Bible

The Books of I Kings and II Chronicles relates the story of the queen's visit, and it is upon these works (or whatever sources the author of Kings worked from) that later versions of the story are based. According to the biblical tale, once Solomon became king he asked his god for wisdom in ruling his people (I Kings 3:6-9). God was pleased with this request and granted it but also added riches and honor to the king's name which made Solomon famous far beyond his borders.

The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom and doubted the reports she, therefore, traveled to Jerusalem to experience it for herself. The Bible only states that the monarch is “the queen of Sheba” (I Kings 10:1) but never specifies where “Sheba” is. Her purpose in coming to see the king was “to prove him with hard questions” (I Kings 10:1) and, once he had answered them and shown her his wisdom, she presented Solomon with lavish gifts:

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And she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to Solomon. (I Kings 10:10)

The 120 gold talents would amount to approximately $3,600,000.00 in the present day and this kind of disposable wealth would certainly be in keeping with the affluence of the Sabean monarchy though not necessarily during Solomon's reign. The mention of the great amount of gold and, especially, the “abundance of spices” certainly suggest Saba, whose main source of wealth was the spice trade, but evidence suggests Saba was most prosperous only from the 8th century BCE onward.

After giving Solomon these gifts, the queen then receives from him “all her desire, whatsoever she asked, besides that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty” and then returns to her country with her servants (I Kings 10:13). Following her departure, the narrative details what Solomon did with her gifts and with the almug trees and gold which Hiram of Tyre had brought him from the land of O'phir (I Kings 10:11-12, 14-26). Nothing further is mentioned of the queen in I Kings and her appearance in II Chronicles 9:1-12 follows this same narrative.

The Targum Sheni Version

By the time the story is repeated in the Targum Sheni, however, it has expanded with significantly more detail. The Targum Sheni is an Aramaic translation of the biblical Book of Esther with commentary but includes the story of the Queen of Sheba as one of its ancillary tales. This version takes the biblical tale of the queen's visit and embellishes it with touches of mythology which most likely had grown up around the figure of Solomon. Solomon's wisdom, according to the Bible, enabled him to understand the language of the trees, animals, and birds (I Kings 4:33). The Targum Sheni picks up on this thread and begins its story with Solomon inviting all the birds and animals of his kingdom to a great feast.

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The creatures all gratefully accept the invitation except for the woodcock who declines, pointing out that Solomon is not as great a monarch as the Queen of Sheba and so does not deserve this level of respect. Solomon then invites the queen to his palace to do homage to him and prove the woodcock wrong and, in order to make a greater impression on her, has one of the spirits under his command transport the queen's throne to him. When the queen arrives she is suitably impressed, walking across a floor of glass which seems water, but still tests Solomon by asking him difficult riddles which, through his wisdom, he is able to answer the queen then pays him homage, and presumably, the woodcock is satisfied.

The Targum Sheni comes from the genre of rabbinic literature known as the midrash: commentaries and interpretation of scripture. The work has been dated to between the 4th-11th centuries CE with different scholars arguing for an earlier or later date based on textual clues. This debate, like the one surrounding the queen's country of origin, continues but it seems likely that the Quran borrows the story from the Targum Sheni since the Islamic work regularly makes use of other older material. To cite only one such example, the Greek story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus appears in a revised form in Sura 18. Like the tale of the Seven Sleepers, the story of the queen of Sheba changes in the Quran to fit the overall vision of the work.

The Queen in the Quran

In the Quran, the queen is known as Bilqis and rules over the mighty kingdom of Sheba. In this version of the story, as in the Bible, Solomon (given as Sulayman) is given the gift of the speech of birds, animals, and the spiritual entities known as jinn (genies). He assembles his hosts one day to inspect them but does not find the hoopoe bird among the company. Solomon says:

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How is it with me that I do not see the hoopoe? Or is he among the absent? Assuredly I will chastise him with a terrible chastisement, or I will slaughter him, unless he bring me a clear authority [provide a good excuse]. (Sura 27:20)

The hoopoe bird appears and tells Solomon that he has been flying far and came to the land of Sheba where, he says, “I found a woman ruling over them and she has been given of everything and she possesses a mighty throne” (Sura 27:20). The bird then goes on to say how the people of Sheba worship the sun, not the god of Solomon, Allah, and how Satan has led them astray so that, although they have a great kingdom, they “are not guided, so that they prostrate not themselves to God” (Sura 27:25). Solomon forgives the bird his earlier absence and sends him with a letter to the queen, inviting her to visit his kingdom.

When the queen receives the letter, she calls a council and reads aloud how Solomon wishes her to come to him in submission to his god. She asks the council for advice, and they tell her they are ready to fight for her but the decision must finally be hers. She decides to send Solomon a gift through a messenger, but the king rejects it and tells the messenger that, unless the queen complies, he will “come against them with hosts they have not power to resist and we shall expel them from there, abased and utterly humbled” (Sura 27:35). After the messenger leaves, Solomon remembers what the hoopoe bird said about the queen's throne and asks his council-members who among them can bring him the royal seat before the queen arrives. A jinn assures him it can be done and brings him the throne.

Once the throne is installed in a pavilion made of crystal, Solomon disguises it. When the queen arrives, he asks her if it is her throne and she replies that it seems to be the same. She is then told to enter the pavilion where she bares her legs before stepping onto the floor because it is so clear she thinks it is water. The wonder of the crystal pavilion and the appearance of her own throne there overwhelms the queen, and she says, “My lord, indeed I have wronged myself and I surrender with Solomon to God, the Lord of all Being” (Sura 27:45). Once the queen has submitted to Solomon's god the narrative in the Quran ends but Islamic tradition and legend suggests that she married Solomon.

The Kebra Negast Version

In the Kebra Negast (“The Glory of Kings”) of Ethiopia this story is retold but developed further. Here, the queen's name is Makeda, ruler of Ethiopia, who is told of the wonders of Jerusalem under Solomon's reign by a merchant named Tamrin. Tamrin has been part of an expedition to Jerusalem supplying material from Ethiopia for the construction of Solomon's temple. He tells his queen that Solomon is the wisest man in the world and that Jerusalem is the most magnificent city he has ever seen.

Intrigued, Makeda decides to go visit Solomon. She gives him gifts and is given gifts in return and the two spend hours in conversation. Toward the end of their time together, Makeda accepts Solomon's god and converts to Judaism. Solomon commands a great feast to celebrate Makeda's visit before her departure, and she spends the night in the palace. Solomon swears an oath that he will not touch her as long as she does not steal from him.

Makeda agrees but, in the night, becomes thirsty and finds a bowl of water which Solomon has placed in the center of the room. She is drinking the water when Solomon appears and reminds her that she swore she would not steal and yet here she is drinking his water without permission. Makeda tells him he can sleep with her since she has broken her oath.

Before she leaves Jerusalem, Solomon gives her his ring to remember him by and, on her journey home, she gives birth to a son whom she names Menilek (“son of the wise man”). When Menilek grows up and asks who his father is, Makeda gives him Solomon's ring and tells him to go find his father.

Menilek is welcomed by Solomon and stays in Jerusalem for some years studying the Torah. In time, however, he must leave and Solomon decrees that the first-born sons of his nobles will accompany Menilek back home (possibly because the nobles had suggested Menilek should leave). Before the group departs, one of the sons of the nobles steals the ark of the covenant from the temple and replaces it with a duplicate as the caravan leaves Jerusalem, the ark goes with them.

The theft of the ark is discovered soon after, and Solomon orders his troops to pursue but they cannot catch up. Menilek, meanwhile, has discovered the theft and wants to return the ark but is persuaded that this is the will of God and the ark is supposed to travel to Ethiopia. In a dream, Solomon is also told that it is God's will the ark was taken and so calls off his pursuit and tells his priests and nobles to cover up the theft and pretend the ark in the temple is the real one. Menilek returns to his mother in Ethiopia with the ark which is enshrined in a temple and, according to legend, remains there to the present day.

Conclusion

There are other later sources which also feature the mysterious queen and argue for or against her historicity. The Christian canticles of the Middle Ages, drawing on the New Testament references to a “Queen of the South” as the Queen of Sheba (Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31), represented her as a mystical figure. Christian art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance often chose the queen as a subject depicted either alone or in the company of Solomon.

The Talmud claims that there never was such a queen and that the reference to a queen in I Kings is meant to be understood figuratively: the “queen of Sheba” should be understood to mean the “kingdom of Sheba”, not an actual person (Bava Batra 15b). Other traditions seem to indicate there was such a queen but who she was and where she came from remains a mystery.

There is no reason to question the claim that a diplomatic mission may have been sent from Saba to Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon and that the emissary would have been a woman. The queen could have been the daughter of one of the Sabean kings or perhaps ruled on her own after the death of her husband.

There is, as noted, no record of a queen of Saba but neither is there any indication of a queen of Sheba named Makeda in Ethiopia or any record of a queen name Bilqis outside of the Quran. Historically, the Queen of Sheba remains a mystery but her legend has endured for millennia and she continues to inspire literature and art in her honor in the present day.


Ethiopia could be sitting on one of world's great untapped gold deposits

Credit: Andrey Lobachev

To the west of Ethiopia near the Sudanese border lies a place called the Asosa zone. This may be the location of the oldest gold mine in the world. Dating back some 6,000 years, it provided a key source of gold to the ancient Egyptian empire, whose great wealth was famous throughout the known world. It may even have supplied the Queen of Sheba with her lavish gifts of gold when she visited King Solomon of Israel almost 3,000 years ago.

The excitement in this part of the world is more about the future, however. Some local inhabitants already make a living from prospecting, and several mining companies have been active in the area in recent years, too.

But what comes next could be on a much bigger scale: I have just co-published with my colleague, Owen Morgan, new geological research that suggests that much more treasure might be buried under the surface of this east African country than was previously thought.

The Asosa zone is made up of flatlands, rugged valleys, mountainous ridges, streams and rivers. It is densely vegetated by bamboo and incense trees, with remnants of tropical rainforests along the river valleys. The zone, which is part of Ethiopia's Benishangul-Gumuz region, is spotted with archaeological sites containing clues to how people lived here thousands of years ago, together with ancient mining pits and trenches.

Local inhabitants have long taken advantage of these riches. They pan for gold in Asosa's streams and also extract the precious metal directly from outcropping rocks.

Local inhabitants panning for gold. Credit: Owen Morgan

More substantial exploitation of the region's riches dates back to the Italian invasion of the 1930s. The Italians explored the Welega gold district in West Welega, south-east of Asosa.

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, believed the country had the potential to become a global leader in gold. But when the revolutionary Derg government deposed him and the country plunged into civil war, gold mining disappeared off the agenda for a decade and a half. It took until the early 2000s before the government started awarding exploration licences.

Several mines are up and running, neither of them in Asosa. One is at Lega Dembi slightly to the east, owned by Saudi interests. The other, at Tigray in the north of the country, is owned by American mining giant Newmont, and just started production late last year.

More is already on the way: the beneficiary of the Italian efforts from the 1930s in Welega is the Tulu Kapi gold prospect, containing 48 tonnes of gold. This was most recently acquired in 2013 by Cyprus-based mining group KEFI Minerals (market value: roughly US$2.3 billion (£1.7 billion)).

As for Asosa, the Egyptian company ASCOM made a significant gold discovery in the zone in 2016. It published a maiden resource statement that claimed the presence of – curiously the same number – 48 tonnes of gold. Yet this only looks like the beginning.

View across the gold-bearing schist rocks of the Asosa zone, Benishangul-Gumuz. Credit: Owen Morgan

The Asosa zone geology is characterised by various kinds of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that are more than 600 million-years-old. The region has been intensely deformed by geological forces, resulting in everything from kilometre-long faults to tiny cracks known as veins which are only centimetres in length.

Some of these veins contain quartz, and it is mainly here that the region's gold accumulated between 615m and 650m years ago – along with silver and various other minerals. The gold came from molten materials deep within the Earth finding their way upwards during a process known as subduction, where tectonic forces drive oceanic crust beneath a continent. This is comparable to the reasons behind gold deposits in island arcs like some of the ones in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Our field observations and panning suggest that gold should be generally abundant across the Asoza zone – both in quartz veins but also elsewhere in the schist and pegmatite rocks in which they are located. We also see signs of substantial graphite deposits, which are important for everything from touch-screen tablets to lithium-ion batteries.

There is undoubtedly much more world-class gold within this area than has already been discovered, pointing to a promising source of income for the government for years to come – much of the region remains unexplored, after all. It probably is no exaggeration to say that Ethiopia's gold potential could rival South Africa's, which would put it somewhere around the top five gold producing nations in the world.

There are still some substantial challenges, however. Dealing with governmental red tape can be difficult. In an area like the Asosa zone there are dangerous wildlife to avoid, such as venimous snakes, baboons and even monkeys. The vegetation also becomes forbiddingly wild during wet seasons.

It is also important to strike up good working relationships with local inhabitants, showing the utmost respect to local cultures – it's the ethical way to operate, and failing to do so can make life harder with the authorities in the capital. This includes the need to preserve the natural beauty of the region gold mining already has a very bad international reputation for environmental damage.

With the right approach, however, western Ethiopia will be a literal gold mine that could bring economic benefit to the region. What the Queen of Sheba may have known 3,000 years ago, the modern world is finally rediscovering today.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Professor Louise Schofield strikes gold in quest to find Queen of Sheba's wealth

A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory.

Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator (and now a visiting professor at The American University of Rome), who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: "One of the things I've always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba's mines is extraordinary."

An initial clue lay in a 20ft stone stele (or slab) carved with a sun and crescent moon, the "calling card of the land of Sheba", Schofield said. "I crawled beneath the stone – wary of a 9ft cobra I was warned lives here – and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken."

On a mound nearby she found parts of columns and finely carved stone channels from a buried temple that appears to be dedicated to the moon god, the main deity of Sheba, an 8th century BC civilisation that lasted 1,000 years. It revealed a victory in a battle nearby, where Schofield excavated ancient bones.

Although local people still pan for gold in the river, they were unaware of the ancient mine. Its shaft is buried some 4ft down, in a hill above which vultures swoop. An ancient human skull is embedded in the entrance shaft, which bears Sabaean chiselling.

Sheba was a powerful incense-trading kingdom that prospered through trade with Jerusalem and the Roman empire. The queen is immortalised in Qur'an and the Bible, which describes her visit to Solomon "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones . Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices."

Although little is known about her, the queen's image inspired medieval Christian mystical works in which she embodied divine wisdom, as well as Turkish and Persian paintings, Handel's oratorio Solomon, and Hollywood films. Her story is still told across Africa and Arabia, and the Ethiopian tales are immortalised in the holy book the Kebra Nagast.

Hers is said to be one of the world's oldest love stories. The Bible says she visited Solomon to test his wisdom by asking him several riddles. Legend has it that he wooed her, and that descendants of their child, Menelik – son of the wise – became the kings of Abyssinia.

Schofield said that as she stood on the ancient site, in a rocky landscape of cacti and acacia trees, it was easy to imagine the queen arriving on a camel, overseeing slaves and elephants dragging rocks from the mine.


The Gheralta Plateau in Tigray Province (Photo: Tigray Trust).

Schofield will begin a full excavation once she has the funds and hopes to establish the precise size of the mine, whose entrance is blocked by boulders.

Tests by a gold prospector who alerted her to the mine show that it is extensive, with a proper shaft and tunnel big enough to walk along.

Schofield was instrumental in setting up the multinational rescue excavations at the Roman city of Zeugma on the Euphrates before it was flooded for the Birecik dam. Her latest discovery was made during her environmental development work in Ethiopia, an irrigation, farming and eco-tourism project on behalf of the Tigray Trust, a charity she founded to develop a sustainable lifestyle for 10,000 inhabitants around Maikado, where people eke out a living from subsistence farming.

Sean Kingsley, archaeologist and author of God's Gold, said: "Where Sheba dug her golden riches is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. Timna in the Negev desert is falsely known as 'King Solomon's Mines', but anything shinier has eluded us.

"The idea that the ruins of Sheba's empire will once more bring life to the villages around Maikado is truly poetic and appropriate. Making the past relevant to the present is exactly what archaeologists should be doing. "


In search of the real Queen of Sheba

Legends and rumors trail the elusive Queen of Sheba through the rock-hewn wonders and rugged hills of Ethiopia.

It was my mother who first mentioned the Queen of Sheba.

The royal name is one of my earliest memories. When someone annoyed her, I’d wait for my mother to mutter, “Who does she think she is—the Queen of Sheba?”

For me the question quickly became, Who was this queen? And where, or what, was Sheba? When I asked, all my mother said was that the queen was very wealthy and, once upon a time, lived in a palace far, far away. A palace, legend has it, in a land we know today as Ethiopia. [Read more about traveling in Ethiopia.]

I’m standing by the remains of a stone palace in Aksum, the onetime capital of the ancient Aksumite kingdom and now a World Heritage site. Many believe it also was once the home of the Queen of Sheba. The day is slipping toward dusk here in northern Ethiopia. From darkening hillsides comes the soft tinkle of sheep bells.

Inside, I explore a long passageway where, once upon a time, royal guards might have seized me as an intruder. Making my way through a labyrinth of ruined rooms and passages, I arrive in a large central hall, a throne room perhaps, where legendary rulers may once have held court. Atop a keystone, a tuft-eared eagle owl turns its head to peer at me with orange eyes. Then it opens wide angel wings and flies off, leaving me alone with the biblical world.

The Queen of Sheba is the Greta Garbo of antiquity. A glamorous, mysterious figure immortalized in the Bible and the Quran, celebrated in an oratorio by Handel, an opera by Charles Gounod, a ballet by Ottorino Respighi, and depicted in paintings by Raphael, Tintoretto, and Claude Lorrain, she remains tantalizingly elusive to the inquiries of historians. Across swaths of modern-day North Africa her legend lives on, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that no one knows for sure if she existed, or if she did, where she lived.

No one, that is, but the Ethiopians, to whom this queen is very real: They consider her the mother of the nation, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty that would last three millennia until its last ruling descendant, Haile Selassie, died in 1975. It was from this palace, they believe (and archaeologists dispute), that their Queen of Sheba set out for Jerusalem around 1000 B.C.

The Old Testament records her arrival in the Holy City “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and much gold and precious stones.” According to the Bible, she had come to test the wisdom of King Solomon. According to Ethiopians, Solomon seduced her and fathered the son she named Menelik, who became the first king of the Solomonic dynasty. Years later, Menelik himself would travel to Jerusalem to see his father—and would return to Ethiopia with a rather special souvenir: the Ark of the Covenant, a casket God had asked Moses to make, according to the Hebrew Bible, to hold the Ten Commandments. The ark and its commandments still reside in Aksum, locals assert—just up the road, in fact, in a simple chapel guarded by a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox monks.

Ethiopia strains credulity. It could belong to an atlas of the imagination. The presence of the Ten Commandments offers just a hint of what this world of cloud-high plateaus and plunging gorges, of Middle Earth-like peaks and blistering deserts of salt, of monasteries forged by serpents and castles fashioned for a tropical Camelot will reveal to me. To ancient Egyptians, Ethiopia was the Land of Punt, an exotic world where the Nile River flowed from fountains. Medieval Europeans believed it was a place inhabited by unicorns and flying dragons, birthplace of Prester John, keeper of the Fountain of Youth, protector of the Holy Grail, and a supposed descendant of one of the Three Magi. [Does ancient Ethiopian culture live on in Africa? Read about it here.]

Thanks to a remarkably inhospitable geography—Ethiopia is where Africa’s Great Rift Valley gets its start—isolation was total. “The Ethiopians slept near a thousand years,” wrote historian Edward Gibbon in 1837, “forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.” The isolation bred mythologies: Ethiopians today admit they have two histories, the one that historians work with and the one that the people believe. The historians’ need for archaeological evidence, often scarce, makes their accounts uncertain. The people’s history has confidence in its detailed, grand, often fantastical stories. Straddling both traditions is the tale of the Queen of Sheba, proof, perhaps, that Ethiopian villagers have something to teach historians.

The ruggedly mountainous, ravine-riven northern province of Tigray is considered the cradle of Ethiopian civilization. This is the land Ethiopians believe constituted the original home of Sheba, a land that now has me walking its trails. Here, the queen remains a persistent rumor, woven into village tales and depicted in frescoes on the walls of remote rock-cut churches—more than 120—that honeycomb Tigray’s mountainsides and remained virtually unknown to the outside world until 50 years ago.

Identifying with ancient times comes easily in Tigray daily life here has changed little over millennia. I see farmers plowing and harvesting fields of sorghum and barley by hand. With no motorized vehicles in sight, getting around means astride a donkey or on foot, which, right now, is just what I’m after. I’d been longing to get into the countryside, to feel Ethiopia under my soles, and have talked Bem, an Ethiopian guide whom I met on earlier travels and who now is a good friend, into joining me. He in turn has put us in the hands of Tesfa Tours, a community tourism enterprise that, working with villagers and development agencies, has built a handful of rustic stone-walled lodges, or hedamos, in Tigray’s highlands. (Tesfa stands for Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives.) Each lodge is owned and operated by a committee of villagers, who act as hosts, manage the lodge, and prepare locally sourced meals for guests.

Bem and I meet up with two Tesfa guides and head into the Tigrayan highlands. The landscape consists of steep escarpments and flat-topped mesas as well as gentle valleys dotted with tukuls, traditional round huts walled with adobe plaster and topped by thatch roofs.

Entering Erar Valley, we are silenced by its beauty. Orchards stand under lattices of sun and shade. Mingling aromas of wood smoke, harvested hay, and spring flowers scent the morning. Near us, slender men are plowing fields of heavy earth with white oxen. Children ghost through groves of trees, waving shyly at us as they herd sheep. A man near a tukul winnows wheat, throwing forkfuls of flailed grain into the air so the breeze will carry off the chaff. Over in a dry riverbed three women appear, their elegant shammas—full-length cotton garments—fluttering like white banners against dun-colored banks. Beyond the valley, beyond the enclosing mesas and escarpments, mountains edged the horizon, their sawtooth peaks wreathed with cloud.

We keep to the flat valley for much of the day’s walk, our bags carried by a stout-bellied donkey. In the late afternoon, our guides suddenly urge the donkey toward a path snaking up the steep flank of a mesa. I ask Bem where we’re heading. “A surprise.” He smiles.

Our intrepid donkey leads us upward, raising a thin haze of dust. Eventually we reach the top of the mesa. The late afternoon sun rakes through expanses of dry grasses. Ahead, a troop of brown-furred gelada monkeys lope across our path, led by a shaggy-maned male.

I spot a building on the far side of the mesa, a mile or so away: the Tesfa hedamo where we’ll spend the night. The small building—and my room, I soon realize—perches dramatically near an escarpment edge that drops more than a thousand feet to the valley. Westward, a vast sweep of ravines and hills marches toward the Adwa Mountains and the setting sun, now coloring half a world with pinks and golds. Where we’ve just come from, the light is a silvery monochrome. Above, a full moon is just breaking free of another range of mountains as it rises. For a moment, the celestial world, the heavens of the Queen of Sheba, are in perfect balance.

In the hedamo’s main room, a woman from a village a few miles off is preparing coffee for our arrival. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, purportedly discovered when a goatherd noticed the energizing effect the wild beans had on his flock. Serving coffee, always performed in front of guests, is an Ethiopian ritual as formal as Japan’s tea ceremony. Settling on her haunches by a wood fire, our hostess begins by roasting the beans in a pan over a fire. As the smoke rises, she wafts it toward us so we may inhale the aroma. [Learn more about Japanese tea ceremonies.]

“Betam tiru no,” Bem says. “Very good.” The beans then are ground in a mortar and added to a kettle of hot water. The coffee will be served in small cups with a surprising traditional accompaniment—fresh popcorn.

As I sip, I catch the rich smell of cardamom-spiced stew drifting from the tiny kitchen, and soon we’re tucking into doro wat—a spicy chicken dish—and kitfo, mincemeat flavored with thyme, both served with injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread made with an iron-rich grain called teff.

After our meal I step outside. Beneath cold stars, the silence on the escarpment is total. I stand at the edge and gaze across an ink-black landscape. I know there are homesteads and hamlets, trails and fields out there—I saw them earlier—but now not a single light shows. Tigray sleeps in darkness as it has done since the time of the Queen of Sheba. Soon, after blowing out my candle and stretching back on my adobe-frame bed beneath thick eiderdowns, so do I.

For a millennium, Tigray’s villagers have congregated in ancient churches excavated from, rather than constructed with, rock. Many were carved out of precipitous rock faces so that access would be difficult. Today parishioners of the fifth-century church of Abuna Yemata Guh undertake some serious rock climbing to attend morning services. Pilgrims to the sixth-century monastery of Debre Damo are hoisted up to the chapel on ropes.

The isolation worked: Historians dismissed tales of hidden churches as fanciful exaggerations until the 1960s. In a list compiled in 1963, only nine rock-cut churches were identified in the region. Tigray proved too remote for further investigation—until an Ethiopian historian, Tewolde Medhin Joseph, saw the list, heard the tales, and donned hiking boots to look for himself. In 1966, at a conference of Ethiopian studies, he presented a new list. There were, he declared, 123 rock-cut churches, many in the most spectacular locations, and most still in use. Some may date as far back as the fourth century A.D., placing them among the oldest surviving Christian sanctuaries. They are older even than the monolithic churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most famous destination, some 250 miles south.

My Tigray trek takes me to one of the 123, Maryam Korkor, thought to be well over a thousand years old and marked by a simple wooden door in a cliff face. A priest materializes with a key the size of a truncheon to open the medieval lock. From the heat-blasted afternoon we step into a cool dim world. The interior, I see immediately, has ambitions to architecture. A dome of four vaulted arches is carved from the ceiling, chisel cuts still evident. Newly cut grass lies scattered across the floor, “to bring the freshness and fragrance of nature into the church,” says the priest, a young man with long, elegant hands and an unsuccessful beard. Sounds of the village below—donkeys braying, children playing, a woman calling to a neighbor—slide through the open door, all muted, disembodied, ethereal.

I spot a curtain hanging against the rough-hewn eastern wall, barring passage to an inner sanctum. The priest explains that it holds a copy of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments and repeats what I hear often: The real Ten Commandments reside in Aksum, where we now head after three days of trekking. Aksum dominated the trade routes between Africa and Asia for a thousand years. The legends speak of a great city that experienced showers of gold, silver, and pearls, of stone pillars that rose to scrape the underside of the sky, of the Queen of Sheba and her grand court. History is more hesitant.

Remnants of a great city are real enough, I see immediately, scattered about the dusty streets of the modern town. Especially prominent are colossal stone obelisks commemorating Aksumite rulers. They don’t quite scrape the underside of the sky (sadly, most have fallen and lie on the ground), but the grandest—a hundred feet long, probably 1,600 years old, and now broken into several parts—is thought to be the largest single block of stone humans ever attempted to erect. These stelae mark the sites of royal underground tombs that Bem is eager to show me. He directs me to a passageway that narrows as it descends. We emerge into a series of subterranean chambers. The ceilings are low, the walls bare, stripped of decorative wealth centuries ago. We find the Tomb of the Brick Arches, which reveals rooms with horseshoe-shaped arches. Our voices echo against the hard stone. In the Tomb of the False Door—named for the carved door that conceals the entrance—we find ourselves whispering, the silence is that powerful.

As powerful is the mystery surrounding the Ark of the Covenant, which Ethiopians maintain was carted off from Solomon’s Temple to Aksum by Menelik, when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. The ark and its commandments reside, as far as anyone can ascertain, in a chapel on the grounds of the Church of St. Mary of Zion. I peer through the railings at two monks guarding the chapel door. It’s said these guardians have been trained to kill with their bare hands. Historians and archaeologists would dearly love to examine the treasure, but the chapel is off-limits to all but a few members of the Ethiopian Christian church hierarchy, hindering any independent confirmation of their authenticity.

Twilight is gathering and I have yet to see the Queen of Sheba’s palace. I hurry to the site west of town and find myself clambering over the back wall to wander alone through the haunted ruins. But haunted by what? Archaeologists date the palace tentatively to the sixth century B.C., when the Queen of Sheba would have been dead for several centuries. They’re not even sure that Sabea—the historical name for the land of Sheba—was in Ethiopia Yemen seems to have an equally persuasive claim.

The latest archaeological discoveries may be coming to the rescue of the queen’s legend. In 2012, Louise Schofield, a former curator at the British Museum, began excavations at Aksum and found considerable evidence of Sabean culture—including a stone stelae inscribed with a sun and a crescent moon, “the calling card of the land of Sheba,” say experts. Sabean inscriptions also were uncovered. Then Schofield struck gold, literally, when she identified a vast, ancient gold mine, quite possibly the source of the queen’s fabulous wealth.

Excavations in 2015 revealed two female skeletons buried in regal style and adorned with precious jewelry. Much work remains—90 percent of Aksum is unexcavated—but the Ethiopian legends that surround Aksum and the palace in which I am standing are beginning to gather historical support. Perhaps the two traditions are not divergent after all.


Watch the video: Meddy - Queen of Sheba Official Video (May 2022).