Closing soon and well worth the drive—“Roads of Arabia,” exquisite and new archaeological discoveries from Saudi Arabia, at the Asian Art Museum through January 18, 2015
A child’s gold funerary mask, 1st century CE., from a royal tomb discovered in the summer of 1998, outside the city of Thaj, in northeastern Arabia shows the influence of Greek culture on Northeastern Arabia. It belonged to a young girl, about 6 years old, who had been buried in royal manner; her body was covered with gold, rubies, and pearls and she was laid out on a Greek bed. The funerary objects buried with her—jewelry and adornments, all datable to the first century CE, were decorated with Hellenistic motifs indicating that not only trade but certain customs too traveled to Thaj from Greece, evidence of what an important cultural crossroads the Arabian Peninsula was during the first millennium. This mask is one of over 200 precious artifacts in “Roads of Arabia,” at the Asian Art Museum through January 18, 2015. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2061.
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” closes Sunday, January 18, at the Asian Art Museum (AAM). Present day Saudi Arabia is a distant land shrouded in mystery to most Westerners. Likewise, the history of ancient Arabia prior to the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, is something we’ve heard virtually nothing about because there has been such scant evidence on which to construct a reliable narrative. Recent archaeological discoveries from the Saudi Kingdom’s glorious past, combined with a desire on the part of the Saudis to share their cultural heritage with the world, has led to this stunning exhibition. Arabia marks new territory for the Asian but there’s a profound connection to Asia. The Arabian Peninsula, with its unforgiving deserts, lush forests and exotic oases, is revealed as a once thriving cultural crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa, vital in early human cultural development and bearing witness to the complex interactions of all those who travelled through.
Ranging in date from pre-historic to the present, the 200-plus artifacts in Roads of Arabia hail from remote sites all across present-day Saudi Arabia and include colossal figurative sculptures and funerary stele, dazzling gold jewelry, intricate metalwork, and elegant calligraphies in over a half dozen languages. Most of these exquisite artifacts were found along the ancient incense roads that originated in southern Arabia and were caravan routes for the transport of precious frankincense and myrrh—the oil of its day—throughout Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Mediterranean world. The advent of Islam in the seventh century CE gave rise to the development of pilgrimage roads that crossed through Arabia to Mecca. The exhibition also addresses the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Anthropomorphic stele, 4000–3000 BCE. Saudi Arabia; Qaryat al-Kaafa site, El-Maakir city.
At the entrance to “Roads of Arabia,” three anthropomorphic sandstone steles (vertical slabs of stone used for commemorative purposes), greet visitors, evidence of early human settlements that have been identified across the Arabian Peninsula. Dating to some six thousand years ago, they appear quite modern, simple and abstract but exert a very mystical, almost hypnotic, pull on the viewer. The three figures on display are part of a group of several dozen steles, all with distinct clothing and appearance, found in an area that extends from present-day southern Jordan to Yemen. Scholars propose that they were probably associated with religious or burial practices. Courtesy: National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 998.
In 2010, a camel herder digging for water on his ancestral grazing lands in southwest Saudi Arabia unearthed a menagerie of stone animals in the sands. The largest, and the most significant, of more than 300 artifacts found so far at al-Magar is a sculpture fragment whose head, muzzle, nostrils, arched neck, shoulder, withers and overall proportions suggest a horse, though it may be an ass, an onager or a hybrid. Eighty-six centimeters (34″) long, 18 centimeters (7″) thick and weighing more than 135 kilograms (300 lbs.), it has fine markings around the muzzle and a ridge down the shoulder that suggest an early halter or bridle. Based on tools also unearthed at the site, some archaeologists have dated this fragment to approximately 7000 BCE, making it roughly 9,000 years old, and have proposed that the people at al-Magar (present day Saudi Arabia) may have been domesticating horses up to 2,000 years before anyone else in the world, challenging the commonly accepted data of 3500 BCE in Central Asia. More research is needed, however, to determine the precise date of this intriguing find. This is just one of over 200 rare objects in “Roads of Arabia.” Courtesy National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 3172.
The AAM is the exhibition’s last stop on its two-year tour. Having debuted at the Louvre in 2010 to rave reviews, it started its U.S. tour at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012. This is the latest in a run of increasingly exhilarating world class exhibitions that AAM director Jay Xu, who came on board in 2008, has brought to the Asian. Just as the stunning 2008 exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” brought a selective and previously unseen group of 20th century archaeological finds from an Afghanistan enmeshed in Taliban rule, “Roads of Arabia” sheds light on an equally exotic land that most of us will never visit. And, aside from the visual draw of the artifacts themselves, you’ll come away from “Roads” with a sense of the interconnectedness of the ancient world.
As the demand for incense declined around the first century, and maritime routes across the red Sea competed with land routes, previously vital incense roads were slowly replaced by pilgrimage roads converging on Mecca, Islam’s spiritual center. From the rise of Islam in the 7th century, pilgrimage trails led from major cities—Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad—to Mecca. This large incense burner (1649), with its delicate inlaid floral motif, was commissioned by the mother of the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40), one of the most powerful royal women of the Ottoman dynasty. Iron, gold, and silver, 14 cm H x 38 cm W. Courtesy: National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2999.
The massive wooden gilded silver door of the Ka’ba, over 11 feet tall and nearly 6 feet wide, is one of the largest artifacts on display in “Roads of Arabia.” Created by the Ottomans nearly 400 years ago and donated to Mecca by sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40) as a sign of devotion, the door stood at the entrance to the interior of the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary, until about 1947, when the door was replaced by a new one. With the birth of Islam in the 7th century, vital pilgrimage routes passed through Arabia that connected diverse peoples making the annual hajj or journey to Mecca from major cities such as Damascus and Baghdad. A tenth-century poet relates that the door at that time was “covered with inscriptions, circles and arabesques in gilded silver.” It bears evidence of centuries of pilgrims touching its surface. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1355/1–2.
Curator talk, Friday January 16th: “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”—Join exhibition curator Dany Chan for an insightful talk about recent and remarkable archaeological discoveries along the Arabian Peninsula. “Monumental” is how I would describe much of the exhibition, Roads of Arabia, with its colossal stone sculptures to the massive gilded doors of the Ka’ba, putting the small things at risk of being missed,” says Chan. “I also want to draw your attention to the pint-sized artworks that, though small, testify to the Arabian Peninsula’s role as a cultural crossroads over the thousands of years that this exhibition covers. Friday, January 16 at 12 PM at the Commonwealth Club: 595 Market Street, San Francisco. The Commonwealth Club is offering Asian Art Museum members a special rate of $8 per ticket (regularly $20). To purchase tickets, select “General Admission: Nonmember” and be sure to enter promo code specialchan to redeem your member discount.
Necklace with cameo face pendant (1st century CE), Thaj city, Tell al-Zayer site, Saudi Arabia. Gold, pearls, turquoise, and ruby. Image: courtesy National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2059.
Details: “Roads of Arabia” closes January 18, 2015. The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. NO surcharge for “Roads of Arabia,” Admission: $15 adults; $10 seniors over 65, students and youth 13-17; Thursday nights $5. For more information, visit http://www.asianart.org
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