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“Roads of Arabia” Opens This Weekend at the Sackler Gallery

The exhibit, which comes to Washington via a blockbuster European tour, reveals new insight into Saudi Arabia’s history.

Artifacts from Saudi Arabia's past. Photographs courtesy of the Sackler Gallery.

Despite a rich cultural heritage dating back many millennia, very little is known about Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. The country has only been excavating for 50 years, but its discoveries offer significant new insight into the nation’s history, revealing religious and domestic practices, its significance as a trade route, the influence of nearby cultures, and the evolution of language.

“Roads of Arabia,” an exhibition showcasing 200-plus different historical artifacts and more than 8,000 years of history, opens at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery this weekend—its first American stop following stints at the Louvre, St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, and Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. “The European tour is testimony to the importance of the exhibition,” says Sackler director Dr. Julian Raby. The show, Raby says, illustrates “a much more complex history than many of us imagine.”

Spread out over two floors of the museum, “Roads of Arabia” explores Saudi Arabia’s past as a trade route between the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for one of the most valuable commodities of the ancient world: incense. While the country is sometimes thought of as isolated geographically, it was a vital conduit for merchants. “All of the great temple civilizations relied on incense, including Greece and Rome,” says Raby. The show also looks at how Saudi Arabia later became a pilgrimage route after the birth of Islam in the seventh century.

Divided into different sections by geography and historical period, the show is dramatically lit, opening with three sandstone funeral steles, or grave markers, from the fourth millennium BCE. The sculptures are distinctly adorned with daggers, belts, and other forms of dress. Later, a fragment of a horse sculpture from approximately 7000 BCE shows the animal wearing what looks like reins, revealing that the domestication of horses by humans dates back much earlier than the previously estimated 3500 BCE.

The other items on display range from neolithic tools and ornately carved chlorite pottery to vast terra-cotta sculptures of male figures. There’s also an entire room of gravestones, revealing some of the earliest forms of Arabic writing. And on one wall, less flashy than some of the other items, are the only wall painting fragments known to have survived from the region.

Excavation in Saudi Arabia is a fairly recent development, so some items have never previously been displayed, even in their home country. “It’s an eye opener,” says Raby. “I feel rather humbled by the fact that I was so ignorant about pre-Islamic history in Saudi Arabia, and I hope that’s what will happen for others.”

“Roads of Arabia” is at the Sackler Gallery from November 17 through February 24. For more information, visit the Sackler’s website.

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