“Roads of Arabia” Exhibit Opens in Pittsburgh

Published: June 22, 2013

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Editor’s Note:

You have another chance to see the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition of Saudi antiquities if you missed it in Washington, DC at the Freer|Sackler Smithsonian museums of Asian art earlier this year. The landmark show opens to the public today at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh after the grand opening gala last night. The “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” will run in Pittsburgh through November 3, 2013. The exhibit is described by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History:

This landmark exhibition presents more than 7,000 years of largely unknown cultural history of the Arabian Peninsula. Roads of Arabia examines the impact of ancient trade routes that traversed the peninsula, carrying precious frankincense and myrrh to the Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman world and allowing for a vibrant exchange of both objects and ideas. With the later rise of Islam, pilgrimage roads converged on Mecca (Makkah) and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads.

Roads of Arabia is an unprecedented assembly of more than 200 recently excavated objects, none of which had been seen outside of Saudi Arabia until 2010. These objects include:

  • prehistoric tools
  • vessels in ceramic, stone, glass, and bronze
  • inscriptions, seals, and tablets in a variety of media
  • jewelry of bone, shell, gold, precious stones, and silver
  • stele, commemorative slabs made of stone or wood
  • funerary objects
  • figural sculpture in stone, bronze, and ceramic, ranging in size from miniature to monumental
  • bas-relief and architectural sculpture
  • incense burners, lamps and other household items
  • fresco
  • coins
  • inscribed tombstones
  • silk and textiles

Carnegie Museum of Natural History is one of only five North American venues to host Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The “Roads of Arabia” exhibit, the first of its kind in the United States, was open in Washington from November 17, 2012 to February 24, 2013 at the Freer|Sacker. Today we provide for your consideration a report from P.K. Abdul Ghafour writing for Arab News about the opening in Pittsburgh along with background information on “Roads of Arabia” provided by VOA at the time of the Washington exhibition.  You can get more information about this important cultural exhibit at the “Roads of Arabia” web site.

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P.K. Abdul Ghafour
Friday 21 June 2013

The prestigious Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh will be hosting a special collection of 227 archaeological “masterpieces” from Saudi Arabia for three months.

The “Roads of Arabia” exhibition will be opened in the city today by Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir, Arab diplomats and a number of Saudi and American officials, academics and archeologists will attend the opening ceremony.

The exhibition is entitled “Saudi Archaeological Masterpieces through the Ages.” The relics are from the Paleolithic Age (one million BC) until the establishment of the Saudi state. Five other US museums will host the exhibition over the next two years.

It focuses on the influence of ancient trade routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula and allowed for trade and cultural exchange between different civilizations. It also features a range of recently discovered relics from these routes including glass dishes, alabaster bowls, bronze statues, pottery and heavy gold earrings.

The exhibits were already displayed at the Smithsonian Sackler Museum in Washington, where the exhibition had its first US show after visiting four European cities. It will visit three more American cities — Houston, Chicago and Boston.

In a statement after opening the show at the Smithsonian Sackler Museum last year, Prince Sultan said it would highlight the Kingdom’s cultural and historical significance. “This is a new window to see a country that has never been thought of or seen in the arena of heritage, civilization and culture,” he said.

The collection includes artifacts taken from the National Museum in Riyadh, King Saud University Museum, King Fahd National Library, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, King Abdul Aziz Library in Madinah, in addition to a number of antiquities found in the latest archaeological excavations.

During its European tour, the show drew more than 1.5 million visitors. The Louvre in France was the first leg of the exhibition in Europe. It then moved to Spain where it was hosted by La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona before being hosted by the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Saudi treasures go to Pittsburgh – Arab News – June 21, 2013

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Acknowledgments

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco are gratefully acknowledged as principal co-sponsors of the tour of Roads of Arabia in the United States. Sponsorship is also provided by The Olayan Group and Fluor Corporation. The Boeing Company, Khalid Al Turki Group, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation SABIC, and Saudi Arabian Airlines granted additional support.

Local sponsorship of Roads of Arabia is provided by Buchanan, Ingersoll, Rooney PC; Koppers; People’s Gas; and American Middle East Institute. Additional support is provided by the Layan Cultural Foundation.

About the Exhibit

In 622 CE the Prophet Muhammad made the most momentous journey in the history of Arabia. He and his followers left Mecca (Makkah) for Medina in a migration known as the hijra. This was a pivotal moment in the development of the Muslim community, and it is little wonder that it marks the launch of the Muslim hijri calendar, for indeed it was the inception of a new era, Year One. The century that followed saw Islam extend its reach from the Straits of Gibraltar to the deserts of the Taklamakan. Islam, in other words, emerged in an effulgent blaze, and what preceded it seems cast in deep shadow.

Over the last forty years, however, archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia have been uncovering sites across the peninsula, revealing an ancient past for which there is scant literary testimony and hitherto no tangible evidence. This exhibition, Roads of Arabia, can open all our eyes, as it includes well over three hundred objects that date from prehistoric times to the birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. It offers, then, a window on the peninsula’s pre-Islamic past and on the axis of the entire Muslim community, the Holy Shrine of the Ka`ba in Mecca.

Mysterious stone steles, monumental statues of humans, haunting gold masks, and bronze statuettes of Roman gods testify to Arabia’s rich and complex history before the coming of Islam. None of the works had been seen outside of Saudi Arabia until 2010, when the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre organized the first exhibition of the material. Other venues in Europe included the CaixaForum in Barcelona, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. We at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are delighted to be the first US venue for Roads of Arabia, and also to serve as the organizer of its North American tour.

The objects selected for Roads of Arabia demonstrate that the Arabian Peninsula was not isolated in ancient times. Arabia acted as the conduit for the spices and incense from its southern coast and the Horn of Africa that supplied the temples and royal courts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This lucrative trade encouraged the development of a network of oases linked by caravan trails that traversed the peninsula, which was thus connected to the great metropolitan centers of the Ancient Near East—Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran—and the Greco-Roman world. Many of the excavated sites reveal a cultural efflorescence, with objects imported from abroad and objects created locally that witness the strength of local and regional ideologies and aesthetics.

The site of Tayma in the northwest region of Saudi Arabia, for example, was not only a major stop on the caravan route but the refuge for some ten years of the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (reigned 556–39 BCE). Within a couple of centuries, some 110 kilometers away, at the site of Dedan (modern al-Ula), the Lihyanite rulers erected a temple preceded by an avenue of awe-inspiring, monumental standing figures. Like the sculptors of Archaic Greece, whose styles were initially influenced by the statuary of Egypt, the Lihyanite sculptors created their own response to foreign models.

Click for larger image

The caravan trade was accompanied by emigration, and in the half-millennium before the rise of Islam, Arab tribes were present in parts of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Notable among these were the Nabataeans, and, while their city of Petra in Jordan is well known, its sister site of Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia is not. Yet it deserves to be, for it is one of the most impressive landscapes in the Middle East, a sculpture park of sandstone outcrops, pierced by funerary caves with imposing carved façades. Because little from the site is movable, it is not greatly represented in this exhibition. One item that is included is a Latin inscription that indicates the cosmopolitan interchanges of this caravan trade.

Another site is located to the southwest, at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the great desert that occupies so much of southern Arabia. At Qaryat al-Faw, Saudi archaeologists made one of their most spectacular discoveries, uncovering a city that contained material typical of southern Arabia alongside Hellenistic figurative sculpture from Syria and Egypt.

With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Mecca became the religious focus of the expanding Muslim world. If we imagine the “Roads” prior to Islam leading out from Arabia to surrounding regions, the “Roads” after Islam are centripetal, converging on Mecca. Instead of the anthropomorphic sculpture that dominates in the pre-Islamic period, the emphasis shifts to the written word following the revelation of the Koran. In Roads of Arabia, the shrine is represented by two great seventeenth-century silver doors donated by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV. In contrast to this imperial and long-distance patronage stands a large array of epigraphic tombstones—elegies to the Muslim pilgrims, many of them women, whose piety drew them to Mecca.

While archaeologists continue their work beneath the shifting sands of the desert, Roads of Arabia offers us a timely glimpse into the peninsula’s richly layered past, and underlines the fundamental transformation that took place in Arabia in the seventh century of our era, the first century of the hijra.

Julian Raby
The Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art

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