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The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Harems, Incense and Perfume

But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites — from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel,”You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. 1 Kings 11:1-5

No small harem

While King Solomon was on the one hand keenly concerned with international trade (which was favorably advanced by his treaty with Hiram of Tyre and now possibly with the queen of Sheba), his interest in spices also assumed a more personal and immediate focus. Though hard to imagine, his harem had reached an astounding proportion—seven hundred women of first rank (wives and princesses) and three hundred concubines, many of whom were non-Israelite worshipers of pagan gods. It seems that foreign trade brought with it “a toleration of heathen customs and religious views,”[1] which in turn created a constant demand for incense and spices.

Lamentably, Solomon himself gradually adopted a form of idolatrous worship involving the Sidonian goddess, Ashtoreth (a moon-goddess sometimes referred to as Aphrodite by the Greeks and Romans), as well as Milcom.1 Kings 11:8 records that he built high places dedicated to these pagan gods where his wives (and perhaps Solomon himself) could burn incense and sacrifice.

The timeless allure of perfume

On a purely physical level though, if there was a luxury near and dear to the heart of a woman…and her king, it might have been perfume. The origin of perfumery is hard to pinpoint, though the genesis of the word itself (i.e., per through fumus smoke) suggests it was first sensed when burning resins from fragrant woods such a bdellium, balsam, myrrh and frankincense. Records indicate that early perfumes took the form of an oily or solid buttery substance created by combining natural oils like olive, almond, sesame, or animal fats with a saturation of fragrances.[2] While used regularly by priests in their religious functions, higher classes such as the women of Solomon’s harem[3] also enjoyed such extravagances.

Perhaps the most revealing primary source concerning the power of such sensory delights is from the pen of Solomon himself in the “Song of Songs.” Possibly written early in his forty-year-reign, Israel’s king composed an epithalamium or nuptial song—an expression of a bridegroom to his bride. In chapter one, verses twelve through fourteen, the Shulamite bride speaks: “While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms in the vineyards of En Gedi.”

Esther (public domain)

Esther (public domain)

Another indication of what may have gone on within the confines of Solomon’s royal household is found in the book of Esther. Though hundreds of years later, it seems plausible that the procedures for preparing the initiates to a king’s harem might have been something similar. The Woman’s Study Bible (1995) notes: “During the Persian period and even among some Arabian tribes in this century, women would build a small charcoal fire in a pit in the floor. A fragrant oil, such as that from sandalwood, cloves, myrrh, or rose, would be placed in the cosmetic burner and heated in the fire. The woman would crouch naked over the burner with her robe draped over her head and body to form a tent. As she perspired, her open pores absorbed the fragrance of the oil. By the time the fire burned out, her skin and clothing would be thoroughly perfumed” (p. 786, “Beauty Preparations: Esther’s Make-Over”).

Considering the size and beauty demands of Solomon’s household, it is safe to conclude that the queen of Arabia’s treasure trove of spices would have been enticing, to say the least.

Common Ancient Spices

CinnamonCinnamon bark (Publicdomainpictures.net) Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of Cinnamomum verum, a small evergreen tree reaching about 15m tall. The spice itself is prepared by growing the tree for two years and then cutting it to ground level. New shoots form from the roots which are eventually stripped of their bark and left to dry naturally. Only the inner bark is used leaving long cinnamon strips which curl into rolls (“quills”) as they dry. Read more at Celtnet: http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/spice-entry.php?term=Cinnamon Native to Sri Lanka and southern India.
Cloves

cloves-20122_1280

Clove trees are members of the Myrtaceae (Myrtle) family. The name derives from French clou, a nail, as the dried buds, which forms the spice itself, vaguely resemble small irregular medieval nails in shape. Native to Indonesia. Harvested primarily in the Spice Islands and Madagascar, today this spice is also grown in Zanzibar, India, and Sri Lanka.
Frankincense

640px-Frankincense

A fragrant gum resin from trees of a genus (Boswellia of the family Burseraceae) of Somalia and southern coastal Arabia that has been used in incense for religious rites, perfumery, and embalming. Native to southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa.
Myrrh

Myrrh-wikipedia-public-domain

Myrrh is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora, which is an essential oil termed an oleoresin. Myrrh resin is a natural gum which has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. It can also be ingested by mixing it with wine. It was so valuable in ancient times that it was, at times, equal in weight value to gold. (Wikipedia, Myrrh) Indigenous to southern Arabia, Abyssinia, and the land of Punt (understood to be a region in East Africa at the south end of the Red Sea, opposite the modern Arabian port of Aden and extending southward along the Somali coast).
Pepper (black)cracked-black-peppercorns The dried fruit of the flowering vine, Piper nigrum, a member of the Piperaceae (pepper) family. The pepper vine is a native of southwestern India and has been traded from there since prehistory.

[1] Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, 1 Kings 11:1.

[2] Early processing methods included pressing the ingredients (much like the way olives were pressed for oil), plants being placed in a sheet of cloth and twisted until the aromatic materials were drained from the source, and cold and hot steeping. http://www.wysinfo.com/Perfume/Perfume_history.htm.

[3] Much later than the time of Solomon, Classical Greeks saw the beginning of a distillation process which led to Greece becoming the first manufacturers of liquid perfume (not, however, the perfume associated with our modern day.) Some of their commonly used fragrances were rose, saffron, frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, cinnamon and cedar wood. Some of these may have been included in the offerings the queen of Sheba brought to Solomon hundreds of years earlier.

The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Gold and Spices

And she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones; there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon (2 Chron. 9:9).

When the queen departed Sheba, Scripture says she came to Jerusalem with “a very great retinue.” How many does “very great” indicate? No consulted commentary ventures any speculation, but perhaps there is a way to guesstimate. Bible scholar, Leon Wood, equates a talent (the queen gave Solomon one hundred and twenty talents of gold) to  just over sixty-six pounds.[1] A rough calculation yields 7,920 pounds…of gold—worth a staggering amount by today’s precious metals market! Evidently a dromedary camel can carry from 300-900 pounds (per a Goggle search). That means the queen could have had anywhere from nine to twenty-six camels just to carry the gold.[2]

There is no way to determine the weight of the jewels or the spices so as to calculate how many additional camels were needed. Nor is there any way to assess how many attendants would have accompanied her, whether she was escorted by armed guards or units of her army perhaps, or how many of these pack animals were needed to carry necessities such as food, clothing and shelter (i.e., tents). Suffice it to say, “she came with a very great retinue” (1 Kings 10:2).

“. . .there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon . . . .”

Why were spices of such note in this account? Why would they have been gifts worthy of the king of Israel? There are several reasons, some going farther back into antiquity.

1. A primary consideration is one of commerce. According to a note in The Women’s Study Bible (p. 565), Sheba’s considerable economy was “dependent upon worldwide, overland spice trade.” Solomon’s new trade alliance with Hiram, king of Tyre, may have caused the queen concern since her merchants must travel through Israel in order to reach other distribution points. Her gifts, including an abundance of spices, were no doubt part of trade negotiations, and as such, were expected. 1 Kings 10:22-25 fills in some of the details.

Arabia was known for its dominance of the spice trade, and went to great lengths to guard its “trade” secrets. It was not above using disinformation as to the origin of its precious commodities (many of which came from as far away as India) nor the routes used to procure/transport them. By keeping a corner on the spice market, Arabia, and in this case, Sheba, could control the supply, charge exorbitant prices, and thus far, avoid paying duty. There was much at stake during this meeting of two formidable potentates.

2. Spices and aromatic gums were quite valuable—some of them were purportedly deemed more precious than gold—and in demand. As early as Genesis 2:12 bdellium,[3] a fragrant gum resin which is thought to be from the arid regions of western India, is mentioned. Another mention of spices is found in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37:25). Joseph was cast into a pit by his jealous brothers, and eventually sold to a caravan of Ishmaelite (some say Midianite)[4] spice merchants traveling the main trade route from Gilead to Egypt—possibly one of the routes the queen intended to use.

Cinnamon bark (publicdomainpictures.net)

Though hundreds of years later than the time of Solomon, in the days of the early Roman empire, naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, wrote that a pound of pepper, the cheapest and most available spice, would buy forty pounds of wheat, and “a pound of the finest cinnamon oil [which most likely came from India or modern-day Sri Lanka] would cost a centurion up to six years’ work.”[5]

3.  Spices were used in funerary preparations—both as preservatives and agents to control the odors of putrefaction. Egypt in particular is known for its embalming techniques and funerary practices involving various herbs, unguents and spices.[6] Using these to slow or kill bacteria that caused decomposition was an effort to keep a corpse fresh and presentable. According to Egyptian belief, mummification preserved a home—a necessary physical frame—to which the immortal ka (life principle) could return.[7]

Israel had its own funerary practices. 2 Chronicles 16:13-14 recounts the burial of King Asa of Judah: “They buried him in his own tomb, which he had made for himself in the City of David; and they laid him in the bed which was filled with spices and various ingredients prepared in a mixture of ointments. They made a very great burning for him.”

4. Spices and unguents were used in religious rituals. In Leviticus 24:7 Moses is instructed to pour “pure frankincense” on the showbread. In Exodus 30:22-33 he is given the formula for holy anointing oil. Using quality spices, perfumers were to combine:

  • five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh,
  • half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels),
  • two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane,
  • five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary,
  • and a hin of olive oil.

He was further instructed, ‘”With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. It shall not be poured on man’s flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.'”

Presumably Solomon himself was anointed king with this same holy oil (1 Kings 1:38-39). “The anointing of Solomon was carried out immediately, as the king had commanded. . . .‘The oil-horn out of the tent’ (i.e., a vessel made of horn and containing oil) was no doubt one which held the holy anointing oil, with which the priests and the vessels of the sanctuary were anointed (see Exo. 30:22 ff.).”[8]

Next time…

There is another reason Solomon would have welcomed such an abundance of spices, one which has to do with his harem. We’ll explore this fascinating topic in the next post.


[1] Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History (1970), p. 292, note 16. However, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, v. 10, equates the 120 talents to be four and one-half tons (p.101)! The above calculation would have to be refigured based on this formula.

[2] There is an ongoing mystery as to the source of the queen of Sheba’s gold. As recently as February 2013 a British archaeologist discovered what may have been her gold mine in northern Ethiopia. Historically Ethiopia was part of the territory of Sheba according to some scholars, and thus under the queen’s control.

[3] F. Rosengarten, Jr. 1969. The Book of Spices, pp. 23–96, Jove Publ., Inc., New York. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Hort_306/reading/Reading%2026-1.pdf

[4] It seems ironic that these merchantmen could have been distant relatives of Joseph’s through Keturah, Abraham’s wife after Sarah died. See Genesis 25:1-2.

[5] Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (2004), p. 73.

[6] In the winter of 1975-1976 the deteriorating mummy of Ramses II (argued by some to be the pharaoh of the exodus) was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for conservation concerns. An x-ray revealed for the first time that peppercorns had been inserted into the king’s nose with plugs of an unidentified resinous substance. Jack Turner, in his book, Spice: The History of a Temptation, mentions, “. . . its [the peppercorn] identity confirmed after an exhaustive process of elimination of native African species some three millennia after its harvest somewhere in the tropical south of India” (p.146).

[7] Turner, p. 147.

[8] From Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database.

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