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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    New in Music Alley

    Soul Lounge: Sweet Honey in the Rocki
    || 0:00:00
    ...  
     
    X
    February 10, 2016 1:48 PM
    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B. The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.

    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B.   The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.