Complexities and history of the Arabian Peninsula

Civilization in the area of Saudi Arabia dates back thousands of years.

Bronze head of a man found at Qaryat al-Faw

WASHINGTON—There’s more to Saudi Arabia than sand, oil and camels.

The proof is at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., with the Roads of Arabia exhibit, on display until Feb. 23.

The exhibit has more than 300 objects drawn from Saudi institutions showing the influences of their neighbours on Arabian art. It draws on treasures discovered over the last 40 years at 10 sites on the Arabian Peninsula.

Ali al-Ghabban, vice-president of Antiquities and Museums in Saudi Arabia, says that it shows civilization in the area dated back thousands of years: “We are not a closed civilization.”

The exhibit is broken into three parts. Part one covers the history starting with the Neolithic human-like sandstone stele and flaked stone axes going back to the 4th millennium BCE.

Displayed in one of several large-sized photographs is an example of Neolithic rock art dating back several millennia. Ghabban points out that Arabia “at that period wasn’t desert. The weather was different, having all these types of animals.” There were lions, ostriches, cattle, camels and humans on the hunt.

At the time what made Saudi Arabia important were the networks of oases for the caravans crossing the desert sand. “Each station was a petro (gasoline) station,” says Ghabban, “We controlled the international trade. Arabia is a gift of its location as Egypt is the gift of Nile. We controlled the trade between east and west.”

What was shipped? Spices, like frankincense and myrrh, and other luxury objects. Arab sculptures reflected Egyptian dynastic styling and bronze heads showed the influence on ancient Rome and Greece.

Then came Islam in the 7th century, and the trade routes changed. Saudi Arabia no longer was a place to cross but a destination as the pilgrimage roads converged on Mecca. Artistic influence became applied to script instead of human representation. This is the second part of the exhibit.

The last part covers the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932 by the late King Abdul-Aziz, known as Ibn Saud.

The exhibit was first shown in Paris after the Saudi government and the Louvre combined forces. It traveled to Barcelona, Russia’s Hermitage and Berlin, with more than 1.5 million visitors.

The Sackler Gallery is the first stop for “Roads of Arabia.” It will travel to Pittsburgh, Houston and San Francisco, with other museums still under discussion.

If you go:

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. through Feb. 23, 2013.

For more go online to

Tish Wells is a Capital News contributor.

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