Shared Quarters: “Roads of Arabia” Shows the Path of Civilization and Its Sudden Turns

Like the African city of Timbuktu, the Saudi Arabian desert called “the Empty Quarter” (“Rub' al Khali” in Arabic) was long mythologized by Westerners as a place forbidden to visit. Even the adventurer-soldier T.E. Lawrence — who crisscrossed the Arab world in World War I and earned the moniker Lawrence of Arabia — once said of the desert, “No European has ever crossed it, nor any Arab any of us has actually questioned. All the Geographers refer to it annually as the great unsolved question of geography.” But Europeans visited the edges of that geography 2,000 years before Lawrence set foot in the region. And during this pre-Islamic period, Europeans influenced Arabia's culture — Hellenized it — in ways that seem astounding today. Seeing the evidence firsthand is now possible thanks to “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” which opened at the Asian Art Museum on Oct. 24 and is one of the year's must-see art exhibits.

Arabia's Hellenization stares back in the bronze work called Head of a Man, with its hair full of detailed curls that recall iconic busts of the Greek god Dionysus or even Michelangelo's David. Dated between the first century BCE and the second century CE, Head of a Man is from an oasis city just west of the Empty Quarter. That city, Qaryat al-Faw, was an important stop on the incense roads that took highly coveted frankincense from southern Arabia to cities north and onward, including Rome and Athens. Rather than being isolated no man's lands, the deserts of Saudi Arabia have long been crossroads of cultures that connected East and West, South and North. “Roads of Arabia” shows that Saudi maps have always led traders over wide expanses of dunes to “the outside world,” and shows that the commerce and culture that rippled back was multicultural and multilingual.

Latin flourished as a lingua franca in the Arabian peninsula, as seen in the writing that covers an exquisite sandstone exhibit dated 175-177 CE. In the same gallery stand a series of other ancient rock writings, featuring Greek, Aramaic (the language that Jesus preached in), and five scripts native to the Arabian peninsula: Old Arabic, Dedanitic, Hagaric, Minaic, and Sabaic, which was spoken in the kingdom of Saba (aka Sheba). The Sabaic slab, first used as a funerary announcement between the third and first century BCE, asks for the protection of the god called Kahl. The Hagaric stone, from around the same time, is also funereal and notes the passing of a woman named Ghadhiyyat. Walking in the darkened gallery that contains these ancient slabs, where each one is framed with a low-level light that illuminates the letters' ridges and shadows, is to circulate in a chamber that has an almost religious intensity.

The ancient world is a significant part of “Roads of Arabia,” whose earliest objects are Lower Paleolithic tools that date to 1.75 million years BCE. But Saudi Arabia's more recent cultural heritage is also on display, and these objects are equally thrilling, epitomized by 11-foot doors that once fronted the entrance to Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca. Made of wood and silver, the doors were built in Turkey between 1635 and 1636, and stood at the Kaaba's interior entrance for 300 years. Countless Muslim pilgrims read the doors' flowing Arabic script, used the doors' sturdy knockers, and passed by the doors on their way to the black building they're required to circumambulate seven times in order to complete the hajj. Even the doors have a cross-cultural heritage: They were donated by the Ottoman ruler Murad IV, whose mother was a Greek convert to Islam.

The Saudi organizers of “Roads of Arabia,” which first stopped at the Louvre in 2010 and then went to museums across Europe and the United States, want the exhibit to re-tell Saudi Arabia's history against the 21st-century backdrop of globalization and interconnectedness. “Most westerners believe that Saudi Arabia is only a desert land with oil wells,” Ali Al-Ghabban, vice president of antiquities and museums at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, told an interviewer after “Roads of Arabia” had finished its run in Paris. “We would like to show everyone — both foreigners and Saudis — how we have participated in the history of humanity, not only in the Islamic period, but even before Islam.”

Whether art alone can reposition Saudi Arabia's history for a mass audience is open to debate. It's certainly true that most people, including Saudi citizens, aren't fully aware of the country's historic position as a conduit of global culture. One example: The courtyard architecture that is so prominent in Islamic construction — and that was evident in Islam's first mosque — found its way to Spain during Muslim rule there, then found its way to New Orleans when Spain ruled that city in the late 1700s. So the courtyards that are so prominent in many grand buildings in New Orleans' French Quarter owe their heritage to Islamic Saudi Arabia. With the passage of centuries, these types of connections get diluted from popular culture. New Orleans' French Quarter isn't entirely French. Not even close. And Saudi Arabia's heritage isn't entirely Muslim. Not even close. Many of the 300 objects in “Roads of Arabia” — which include pottery, jewelry, incense burners, and painting fragments — are new discoveries, found in the past 10-50 years as the country's government put a greater emphasis on historic research projects.

Among the objects discovered at Qaryat al-Faw, close to the Empty Quarter: perfectly preserved bronze statuettes of the Greek mythological figure Heracles (known in the West as Hercules) and of Harpocrates, an Egyptian deity that was also revered in Greece. Both statuettes were crafted between the first and third centuries CE. With the rise of Islam in the year 610, Arabia's Muslim citizens could no longer worship Harpocrates.

Like other countries, Saudi Arabia is a nation of contradictions. Non-Muslims are prohibited from visiting Mecca. Individual tourists can't get visas for Saudi Arabia. And Jews aren't generally allowed to travel there. By bringing Saudi Arabia out of the kingdom, into venues where anyone can set foot, “Roads of Arabia” opens up a history that belongs to the whole of the modern world.


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