The mention of Saudi Arabia often leads people to envision an oil-rich, nearly-empty desert where Islam originated.
An exhibit in Washington, D.C., offers insight into the real history of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing on its pre-Islamic role as a trade route, the influence of nearby cultures, and the evolution of language.
"Roads of Arabia” opened at the Smithsonian’s Arthur Sackler Gallery.
The exhibit, the first about Saudi culture in the U.S., showcases more than 300 objects ranging from ornate pottery and monumental statues, to the jewelry that adorned the remains of a young girl buried nearly years ago.
Many of the objects have never been seen in Arabia, where they came from.
“Some of the earliest objects go back to the Neolithic period, like the 6th, 7th millennium BC," curator Massumeh Farhad says. "And I think the most recent ones date to the early 20th century.”
The exhibit explores the Arabian Peninsula’s past as a trade route for one of the most valuable commodities of the ancient world, incense. A collection of incense burners shows how the great temple civilizations, including Greece and Rome, relied on incense brought from Arabia.
“Incense was what oil is today," Farhad says. "In order to get the incense from the southern part, it had to move up the Red Sea coast. There were these various stopping stations and every station would levy a tax on the caravans. That is how many of these places became very wealthy.”
Many items provide examples of how Arabia was influenced by ancient civilizations further north. A bronze statue of a man’s head is an example.
“If one were to see this object without any idea where it came from, they would immediately say it’s Roman," Farhad says. "But then when you look at the head, there are certain characteristics that you realize, these are not quite Roman, the thick curls of the figure that are typical of an Arab of that period, you don’t see Romans with the same features."
One of three sandstone steles, or grave markers, from the fourth millennium BC, is a favorite of Farhad’s.
“He’s sort of standing, his head is slightly tilting to one side and he’s sort of crossed his torso," she says. "I find something incredibly moving about that figure because on one hand he’s extremely abstracted, he’s only sort of defined by sort of crisp lines, but at the same time, there is so much sort of emotion and feeling in the figure.”
Arabia's history as a destination for pilgrims after the birth of Islam in the seventh century is also showcased.
"One of the highlights of the exhibition is sort of the sea of tombstones from Mecca that are inscribed with the names of the deceased and a short section from the Quran,” Farhad says.
The Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities co-organized and co-sponsored the exhibit.
“We want to show the world that we had an important role," says Ali al-Ghabban, a commission spokesperson. "We are similar to the other countries in the region; Egypt or Syria or Mesopotamia. Arabia was always present, not only with the petrol discovery."
For some extreme Islamists, pagan antiquities are sinful. Before the Washington exhibit opened, an Egyptian fundamentalist threatened to destroy pre-Islamic monuments, like the ancient Sphinx and the Pyramids, if he's able to.
That's something Al-Ghabban finds unacceptable. “It’s stupidity, I think. The first Muslims did not do the same.”
For Al-Gabban, the exhibit, with its huge pre-Islamic section, is the answer to those destructive calls.
“I think we need to understand deeply our religion, and I can guarantee you there is no contradiction between protecting the human heritage and Islam.”
“Roads of Arabia” comes to Washington after showings in Europe and will travel to more venues in the United States.