Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery Presents U.S. Premiere of “Roads of Arabia: Archeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”

Exhibition Highlights Recently Discovered Artifacts from Saudi Arabia’s Unknown Ancient Past
January 10, 2012
News Release

Standing larger than life, arms stiff at their sides, the sandstone male figures convey strength and protection. Their solidity recalls regal sculptures of ancient Pharaohs, while the smooth, carefully delineated muscles of the stomach and chest evoke the heroic male nudes of classical antiquity. Surprisingly, however, these colossal figures were not excavated in Greece or Egypt, but in the province of Al-Ula, an oasis located in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, now modern-day Saudi Arabia.

The colossi are some of many unexpected art objects in “Roads of Arabia: Archeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” co-organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities to feature objects recently excavated from more than 10 sites throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The Sackler Gallery will be the first U.S. venue for this unprecedented exhibition Oct. 20 through Feb. 10, 2013. It will be a major highlight of the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary in 2012.

The exhibition will focus on the impact of ancient trade roads that traversed the peninsula and allowed for the exchange of objects and ideas, and it will examine the development of pilgrimage roads that converged on Mecca with the rise of Islam. Julian Raby, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, describes “Roads of Arabia” as “a new window onto a country whose pre-Islamic past is little known to anyone other than a handful of scholars today, and whose Islamic history is often misunderstood.”

“Roads of Arabia” reveals the unknown past of the Arabian Peninsula with newly discovered artifacts from ancient trade routes stretching from Yemen in the south to Iraq, Syria and Mediterranean cultures in the north. Elegant alabaster bowls and fragile glassware, heavy gold earrings and Hellenistic bronze statues testify to a lively mercantile and cultural interchange among distant civilizations.

“Roads of Arabia” will showcase more than 200 objects at the Sackler, ranging from Paleolithic funerary stele, found in the northern regions of Hail and Tabuk, to early 20th-century photographs of Makkah (Mecca), Medina and Riyadh.

As early as 1200 BCE, the camel revolutionized Arabian commerce. Highly valued incense was transported from the Horn of Africa and the southern shores of Arabia to the temples and royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy, mountainous landscapes, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production.

One of these major commercial hubs was Qaryat al-Fau, the capital of the Arab Kingdom of Kinda, a resplendent city of markets, multistory buildings and more than 120 water wells. Artifacts from the site demonstrate the influence of cultures in their imagery, such as drinking cups made of dark blue glass, popular throughout the Roman Empire. Although seemingly isolated at the edge of the daunting desert known as the “Empty Quarter,” the community of Qaryat al-Fau was connected to the cultures of southern Arabia and civilizations far to the north.

The second part of “Roads of Arabia” focuses on pilgrimage trails, specifically the road from Makkah and its cemetery of Al-Ma’lat. “Roads” features numerous funeral stele (upright stones or slabs) from the site. Made of gray or red basalt, the stele are skillfully incised with calligraphic tributes to the departed, listing names, homelands, family lineages and sometimes professions. A particularly poignant stele from the 12th century marks the gravesite of a father and daughter who died on their pilgrimage journey.

An earlier version of “Roads of Arabia” was developed last year by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) in collaboration with the Louvre. It was exhibited in Paris, the CaixaForum in Barcelona and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and will soon open at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery has re-organized “Roads of Arabia” with the SCTA for a North American tour.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, including other special programs to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sackler Gallery in 2012, visit For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000 or TYY (202) 633-5285.

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