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By Marlene Muhr
"When the Queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions." (1 Kings 10:1 NIV) "The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it: for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here." (Matthew 12:42 NIV)
Republic of North Yemen
Which of you has not been intrigued by the story of that wealthy queen, who, stepping out of the unknown, entered into world history at the most glorious time of Jewish prosperity?
Many legends have grown up around Bilquis, the "Queen of the South," as Jesus called her. According to the Arabs, she lived in the southwestern part of North Yemen. She ruled over the Sabean kingdom and empire, which included all the countries bordering the Red Sea and the high plateaus of Abyssinia. Her kingdom was like a watered garden, with sophisticated irrigation systems and reservoirs. The steep slopes of her high mountains were terraced for cultivation, and big darns were constructed in her oases. Her twenty-story palace was built of hewn, white stones, and so was Marib, her capital.
Today the whole site lies buried under the sands of the centuries following the punitive action of the Muslims against the Sabeans. This is mentioned in the Koran: "The inhabitants of Sheba had a celestial sign in the land in which they lived -two gardens, one on the right and one on the left. We told them, 'Eat the food was which your Lord gives you. Give thanks to Him. You have a beautiful country and an indulgent Lord.' But they turned away from the truth. So we sent against them, floods from the dams, and we exchanged the two gardens for two others, which produced bitter fruit."
Yemen -a part of Arabia Felix, or "Happy Arabia" -was well situated at the junction of ancient roads of commerce linking the East and West. Its products of frankincense, spices, and myrrh, and cargoes of precious stones, ivory, gold, and silk from Somalia, Ceylon, India, China and Siam -were carried on the recently domesticated camels. They travelled along the well-known incense highway through Shabwa, Marib, Quarnaw, Mecca and Medina, on their way to Mediterranean lands and seaports.
At about 950 B.C., the Queen of Sheba and her pompous retinue went north with her long camel train, bearing four and a half tons of gold, and large quantities of spices and precious stones. What caused her to undertake this three-month journey? Her empire had reached its supremacy during her reign. There was nothing left to be desired, at least outwardly. But inwardly she was seeking for wisdom which would lead her to truth. She had built a huge temple, but her worship of the sun-god and the moon-god left her empty. After talking with King Solomon she declared, "The report which I heard in my own country about your achievements and wisdom, is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard." (1 Kings 10:6,7 NIV) Her example was recorded in heaven, and Jesus quoted her on earth, a thousand years later!
It is from this land of legends that I am writing you, dear friends. Happy Arabia is no more. After nearly thirteen centuries of vacuum, a few Christians have come back, to live Love in the also midst of ruthlessness.
Ann and I never expected to come here. Missionaries had invited us to record in Aden, the former British Protectorate, at the tip of Arabia. We flew from Iran via Kuwait, where we were the honored guests of Arab Christians for five days. Landing at the Aden airport, I, being French, was given a thirty-day visa, but Ann was informed that now no Americans were being admitted. However, the authorities, wanting to be kind, gave her forty-eight hours, with no appeal. What a shock!
"Why do you want to work in Aden?" asked Dr. Lionel Gurney, a missionary of thirty years' experience and leader of the Red Sea Mission Team, the following day. "Go to North Yemen! They need you there, more than here!" He had just been visiting one of their newly-opened medical stations, where they face the language barrier. Through the years, a number of dialects, not mutually understood, have evolved from the Arabic. "What we I need is Gospel Recordings," he had told the nurses. They prayed that the Lord would make this possible. And here we were, the answer to their prayers!
So off we went to North Yemen, in a small local plane which didn't look too solid, but was extremely cheap. If the airline superintendent had not cancelled two other reservations on account of our extremity, Ann would have been put into jail!
In sharp contrast to the arid sandy expanse of Aden, this country presented a colorful spectacle of breath-taking beauty and variety of terrain. Flying over the towering mountains, we could see tiny walled-in villages perched on the summits, terraced fields clinging to the sides, tempting green valleys, and right above the horizon, clear blue skies.
"Welcome to North Yemen!" said the official, with a bright smile, as we disembarked -- the only foreigners.
We didn't know any Arabic, and nobody spoke English, but we soon discovered that the name of Dr. Young was the password for safe travel. We were among seven million people who had not emerged from their historic past. To get to Dr. Young's hospital, we crowded into a "taxi" with some of them, who were wearing the usual gun and the jambia, that long curved knife in a sheath. They also chewed qat, the green leaves of a mild drug. Up and down, round and round for hours we went through clouds of dust. Finally at ten p.m., we arrived at the hospital at an altitude of 6,000 feet.
Since there was no post or telephone service, no one knew of our coming. After hearing the name of Dr. Young, an armed guard opened the iron gate to us and led us to the nurse on duty. We were in! And immediately we were given warm hospitality, the greatest reward to weary, travel-worn strangers.
Dr. Young and his colleagues embraced our project with enthusiasm, and heartily cooperated with us. About four years ago he had built this seventy-bed hospital on the hillside opposite Jibla, whose thousand-year-old stone houses are replicas of those in the days of Queen Bilquis. Square, several stories high, they give the impression of layered fortresses that have not awakened to the present age.
The hospital already had the reputation of being the finest in the country. Once a man came from a long distance for a minor surgery, and when the doctor asked him why he didn't go to the government hospital which was nearer to him, he answered, "Because everybody in the whole world knows Dr. Young is the best!" Even gravel roads are very few, and people come from all over Yemen by crossing the mountains on small and sometimes dangerous trails. They may walk for several days. Recently a man came fourteen days by foot, carrying his sick wife on his back, with the hope that the doctors would be able to help her, and they did. But what thrills us most is to see that Yemeni people come under the sound of the gospel, and this for the first time in many centuries!
Fear is still gripping people, and Islam is still holding them prisoner. In other Muslim countries, we have noticed a definite lack of joy, but here, all faces seem sad -- grave little boys, and half-veiled little girls with a grown-up look who have never been taught to play. Recording in the various Arabic dialects is far from easy. However, we have already been able to get several of them, and hope.for more as soon as we go to Sanaa.
We continue to covet your prayers. Haven't we seen the Lord doing miracles all the way? After North Yemen, we expect to go back to Kuwait via Saudi Arabia, spending two days in Jedda, not far from Mecca! Then on to Lebanon and Turkey before landing in Geneva by March 19. Our one-year's trip will be over with seventy-seven languages recorded -we hope.
Yours in Him, Marlene Muhr
P.S. We are now in Sanaa, the capital, with forty-five mosques and twenty-four minarets! Modern times come to a stand-still as soon as you go through one of the eight gates in the mud wall, thirty feet thick, that surrounds the city. You immediately find yourself in the midst of the vestiges of Arabia Felix. Narrow la, dirt streets for people and donkeys twist between the massive he houses topped with flat roofs, whose white-washed borders cut geometric designs in the azure sky. The many window frames and he elaborate decorative fretwork, all white-washed, give a certain dignity and beauty to the old structures. The alabaster window- in panes have largely been replaced by stained glass and so has the motif of the Star of David.
All day, the souk (market) vibrates with people, smells, and colors. Panting bearers of over-sized burdens often bigger than he themselves, squeaking overloaded carts, and braying donkeys, move through the human density upon which the proud camel looks with disdain. Bargaining goes strong and loud, haggling over anything, interrupted only by the strident "qui-i-ichr" of the tea vendors. Men looking like Abram of old, in their long robes or pleated skirts, all armed of course, hurry to buy up their daily supply of "qat." And everywhere, there are scampering children and the walking tents that go briskly about their business, showing only women's feet.
Shops - those cubicles in the walls - offer a variety of trades and wares. The weaver sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of his primitive loom; the shoemaker sewing sandals with a long needle and heavy thread; the smith beating out jambias; the basket maker; the antique seller in the midst of Ali Baba's treasures --he says his alabaster oil lamps date back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.
And then the jewelers' corner, the place of the finest hand-made silver ornaments. If you search, you may discover the one or two shops where they sell rings with a small gold fish mounted on them -the emblem of the early Christians. These rings have been made ever since the third century A.D. At that time, the Jews were the only jewelers in Yemen, and they designed them to satisfy their Christian clients. After the expansion of Islam and the extinction of Christianity in the seventh century, they continued to make them until "Operation Flying Carpet," which, from 1941 to 1951 transferred some fifty thousand Jews to Israel. Their art was inherited by the Yemenites.
As I look at my ring with its little Christian emblem, my prayer is that the Yemeni nation may come to know the meaning of "ICHTHUS", and turn to Jesus Christ, the Son of God as their Saviour.