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.

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Comment Sorting
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 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).

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