For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.
The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.
Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.
Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.
Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.
From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.
From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.
There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.
So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.
The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)
Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!