News / Arts & Entertainment

Saudi Arabia's Pre-Islamic History Revealed

Faiza Elmasry
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.

  • Discovered in a magnificent royal tomb in 1998, this funerary mask from the First Century CE, belonged to a young girl, whose body was covered with gold, rubies, and pearls. (Freer Sackler Galleries/Smithsonian Museum)
  • This statue, with its formal pose and well-defined musculature, is from 4th-3rd century BCE. An inscription on another statue helps identify them as kings of the Lihyanite dynasty. (Freer Sackler Galleries/Smithsonian Museum)
  • This massive wooden door, covered with silver leaf, was donated to Mecca by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40). The design of such doors changed little over the centuries. The Ottoman door was used until around 1947. (Freer Sackler Galleries/Sm
  • This incense burner uses architectural motifs and has a serpent running up one side. The many incense burners found at Qaryat al-Faw, a major trading center in the southwest, indicate that the population both traded and actively used incense in their own
  • This anthropomorphic stele dates back to some 6,000 years ago and was probably associated with religious or burial practices.(Freer Sackler Galleries/Smithsonian Museum)
  • Commissioned by the mother of the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40), this exquisite incense burner is one of the many gifts presented to the shrine at Mecca, the spiritual center of Islam. (Freer Sackler Galleries/Smithsonian Museum)
  • This is a fragment of a member of the horse family. Fine markings around the muzzle and shoulder hint at an early bridle. Dated from about 7000 BCE, it suggests the domestication of the horse may have occurred far earlier than 3500 BCE in Central Asia. (F
  • The so-called al-Hamra cube was discovered in the al-Hamra Temple at Tayma, an important trading city in northwestern Arabia. Its fine decoration confirms the integration of Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs into local religious practices. (Freer Sackler G


“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.

You May Like

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?

Decision to restore ties between US and Cuba has some debating whether it will lead to an enhancement or regression of democracy on the Communist island nation More

Kenyan Designer Finds Her Niche in Fashion Industry

‘Made in China’ fabrics underlie her success More

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander

The Washington Post story says Imad Mughniyah was killed instantly by a bomb "triggered remotely" from Tel Aviv by Mossad agents More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: American Charles
December 02, 2012 8:00 AM
Compliments to the Sackler Gallery, as usual. A jewel in and of itself in our Nation's Capital.

Fascinating pre-Islamic images indicate a flourishing cosmopolitan trade-based civilization prior to the stifling effects of the much later Islamic blanket.

Compliments also of course to the Saudi Embassy. We need to be reminded that there was life before Islam, life after Islam, and life before the curse of politically exploited petroleum.


by: dignity from: UK
December 02, 2012 7:28 AM
very surprising that the Saudis are interested in the old artifacts in early Arabia. in fact, the Saudi government has chosen to destroy many historic buildings and monuments within mecca in Ottaman times. Prophet Sal 's house and the houses of many of his blessed wives. Bin laden group has been given the contract.


by: Dr. Abdul Hamid from: Connecticut, USA
December 01, 2012 6:20 PM
Your statement, "Arabia's history as a destination for pilgrims after the birth of Islam in the seventh century is also showcased" is not correct.
Islam was not born in Arabia. Islam (submission to Allah) is Allah's religion and is eternal. All prophets were sent to teach humanity the same religion. The last prophet was born in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
Why Muslim believe this is based on Allah’s following commands.
Al-Baqara [2:136]: “Say ye: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we Muslims."
And again in Al-Imran [3:84] the same statement is repeated.
And in one place reminding people of the book (Jews and Christians) about Ibrahim (AS) Al-Imran [3:67]: “Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but was orthodox Muslim, and he joined not gods with Allah.”
And yet an other place ordering Muslims, “Say: Verily, my Lord hath guided me to a way that is straight, - a religion of right, - the path (trod) by Abraham the true in Faith, and he (certainly) joined not gods with Allah."
These are just a few examples.

In Response

by: oğuz from: izmir-turkey
December 04, 2012 7:30 PM
ı complately agree wıth you. ı wısh there were more people who teach ıslam properly.thanks for comment.

In Response

by: Rev Prof I. J. Belonga from: LOUISIANA
December 04, 2012 7:03 PM
Please permit me to extend to you my sincere thanks for going on record with your statement of clarification and correction. Immense suffering, alienation, destruction and worse has come to be because too few look upon this historical panorama without rose colored glasses.


by: Elizabeth from: Washington, DC
November 30, 2012 2:30 PM
Very interesting article. Answered a question I've long wondered: why incense was so highly valued, also did not realize that incense of Arabia was used in temples of ancient Greece and Rome. Thanks for insightful view, was wondering if the exhibit was worth going to see - will definitely go now.


by: John Few from: United States
November 30, 2012 1:39 PM
Is there any mention or display of Christianity that existed on the Aribian Penninsula prior to the introduction of Islam?

In Response

by: fahad from: saudi arabia
December 05, 2012 1:32 AM
Hi , read about ( Jubail chrurch ) ( Jeddah chruch )
also about The christian of Najran who were burnt alive by a jew king...email me and i will tell u everything about christian arabs or check my chanel in youtube ( arabiannight100)

In Response

by: Dr. Abdul Hamid from: Connecticut, USA
December 01, 2012 6:48 PM

Actually there was a picture of Isa (Jesus) and his mother (peace be upon both) on the walls of Kabaa along with all the other idols.
Waraka ibn Nawfal, parental cousin of Khadija (the first wife of the prophet) (may Allah be pleased with her), and also related to the prophet in other ways, was a Christian priest. He is well regarded in Islamic tradition for being one of the first monotheists to believe in the last prophet, Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him).

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Lateri
X
Deborah Block
January 31, 2015 12:12 AM
Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

Singer Leyla McCalla takes up not only the guitar, but the banjo and cello to perform songs from her new disc, “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” music that mixes the Creole rhythms of Haiti with the French Quarter flavor of New Orleans on this edition of "The Hamilton Live."