Why I ...believe I may have found the grave of the queen of Sheba

May 28, 1999

Patrick Darling Archaeologist at Bournemouth University. He has discovered the remains of an ancient kingdom deep in the Nigerian rainforest

Each year, thousands of pilgrims come to honour what they believe is the grave of the queen of Sheba. This is a spot bare of vegetation in the Nigerian rainforest where tall trees have become entangled with canopy foliage, festooned with spider's webs and falling leaves, creating a gloom that inhibits vegetation.

Bilikisu Sungbo - linked by local tradition to the queen of Sheba - is variously regarded by the native people. She is seen as an Orisa, a priestess turned goddess and as a childless widow, which adds to the spiritual potency. Some call her the devil woman and fear to enter the Eredo monument - the 100-mile long, 70-foot rampart she is supposed to have ordered her slaves to build "for remembrance". They believe she is out to get those not pure in heart and deed.

This is one of the reasons the ramparts, which have long moated sections and exceptionally well-preserved vertical ditch sides, have been left hidden under vegetation. The grave lies within 30 metres of the rampart at a place where it is deliberately moated. The moated sections link to the swamp forests - where evil spirits are thought to dwell.

Many women visit the Eredo and pray to Sungbo for children, but only men can visit her grave. The queen of Sheba link comes, I should guess, from the Koran. It is possible the belief that she was the queen of Sheba may have been conflated with the memory of a real and powerful woman who lived there in the 1890s, when Islam was taken up.

Local traditions, the evidence of a powerful kingdom, of gold, ivory and eunuchs associated with West African courts of royalty mean the possibility that the site is linked to the queen of Sheba cannot be discounted. The legend may, however, have travelled farther than reality. The possibility is there, the probability is not - that is my academic position.

But let us look at the African reality rather than the European myth. This is one of the greatest achievements of black Africa. I hope to go back in the next dry season to carry out further research, when perhaps the spirits will have retreated back to the swamps.

* Interview by Helen Hague.

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