The Ancient and International Roads of Arabia

Written by Nikolai Sadik-Ogli 24.11.2014
Image: Nikolai Sadik-Ogli

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum is currently hosting the traveling exhibition “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” from October 24th 2014 through January 18th 2015. The first version of the exhibition was organized in 2010 and travelled through Europe before this current version opened in America at the Smithsonian in November 2012. In San Francisco, the show has, for good reason, received a lot of positive press, which has described it as a “must-see” event. The exhibition is spread throughout the entire first floor of the museum, in four galleries augmented by additional exhibits and informational presentations set up in the floor’s open areas.

The first gallery is devoted to prehistoric Arabia, and the earliest Paleolithic tools on display, found in both the north and southwest, are dated from over one million years ago. Much like the geographic diversity of these locations, the whole exhibition features a variety of objects from different times and areas all around the peninsula. While the later Neolithic arrowheads represent more tools, they are followed by the first representative pieces: simple yet distinctive and immediately recognizable animal heads, such as goat or sheep, which were found in the central, southwestern al-Magar site in 2010. Like these objects, many of the earliest artifacts on display come from relatively recent finds and are now on display for the first time outside of Saudi Arabia as a part of this collection. Even more importantly, some of the pieces from this time appear to feature horse heads with bridal marks, and this could represent an earlier domestication of the horse in Central Asia than is currently believed.

The intriguing series of somber anthropomorphic steles, found at the northerly Qarayt al-Kaafa site and dating from 4000–3000 BC, are featured prominently in the promotional literature. They have remarkably expressive, often downcast features and elongated, almost abstract arms, features that give them a strikingly modern feel. A different, though equally striking, style can be seen in the similar and contemporary steles from the important northwestern sites of Tayma and al-Ula, locations from which many of the later pieces also originated. A mix of recognizable Mesopotamian and Egyptian motifs exist side by side on the remarkable al-Hamra cube. Further, native Arabian gods, later toppled by Islam, can be seen depicted on other objects. The last room in this overwhelming first gallery is devoted to the rise of a variety of written scripts that were developed for the different languages that flourished in the area, such as Dedanic, Hagaric, and Aramaic. The presentation also includes a listening station with, presumably highly-speculative, readings of the various inscriptions seen on some of the objects on display.

These examples demonstrate the wealth of new, detailed information in terms of locations, cultures, archaeological sites, and time periods, that the exhibition presents, and the Museum should be commended for providing an excellent amount of context and other necessary information to explain the artifacts on display. This is accomplished by reiterating the region’s map in every room to indicate the locations were the key objects had been discovered in relation to the roads of the title. In this regard, the second gallery is devoted to the incense roads. They developed as the result of a lucrative trade in products such as frankincense and myrrh that were harvested from the barks of certain trees in the southern regions and became important, international commodities starting around 600 BC. Outside the gallery is an informative display and video about the harvesting and processing of these products, along with samples to see and smell. The trade became international in scope, and eventually, by the time the incense reached its final destination in Rome, its price had increased so much that it later became a controversial financial strain on the empire. One enters the gallery to be immediately surrounded by several oversized (i.e. 230 cm tall above the knee) anthropomorphic statues, like the one seen in the picture below. Impressively, with a few simple carvings of layers and lines, the anonymous ancient sculptors beautifully evoked realistically perceptible folds in the cloth skirt and the string that was used to tie it. The second half of the gallery features items that represent Greek, and later Roman, influences in the form of jewelry, fragments of frescos, furniture, and sculpture. Most impressive to me was the stunningly detailed statue of Heracles, which was also prominently featured in the exhibition’s promotional material because of its surprisingly small size: only 25 cm tall, the miniature figurine represents an outstanding piece of ancient craftsmanship.

Roads of Arabia / The San Francisco Asian Art Museum

The “Roads” theme of the exhibition repeatedly emphasizes the transition (or continuation) from the ancient incense roads to the present-day pilgrimage roads associated with the Islamic hajj to Mecca, which is the subject of the last two, much smaller, galleries. The hallway before the third gallery displays a number of gravestones mostly dating from around 800 AD taken from al-Mala, near Mecca. Their inscriptions recognizably resemble modern Arabic writing. The gallery contains yet another highlight of the show, the former doors of the Ka’ba in Mecca. The gilt doors were donated by Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire in 1635 and remained in use until they were replaced in 1947. An inscribed piece of the kiswa, the annually gifted black cloth that covers the Ka’ba, is also on display, and continually projected historical footage of an early twentieth-century hajj places these amazing objects into their profound context. The small fourth gallery is devoted to the history of the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its founder, Abdulaziz: it includes his personal flag and decoratively boxed Koran dating from the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The exhibition provides a remarkable trip through the time and space of one specific, previously quite unfamiliar, area. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult not to view the exhibition in light of all the unfortunate and violent news that continue to be regularly reported from the troubled Middle East. In contrast to the narrow-minded viewpoints that continue to perpetuate those conflicts, this exhibition reminds us that the world has also been an international and cosmopolitan place for most of recorded history. It is fascinating to think of the different societies and human activities that these artifacts represent: religious motifs from Egypt and Mesopotamia were carved side by side into stone, different scripts were used on the same object, and the citizens of Rome knew about and wanted more incense all the way from Arabia even though they were fully aware that they would have to pay dearly for it. Of course, there is plenty of war and misery also recorded in many of these objects and their history. Nevertheless, this open exchange of historical information is an important counterbalance to close-minded dogmatic fanaticism that, on the other end of the spectrum, often leads only to pure horror. This exhibition is therefore a welcome counterbalance to the otherwise troubling current world situation.


Roads of Arabia
The San Francisco Asian Art Museum
The exhibition’s audio tour can also be downloaded as a free app onto any Apple device.