Arabian Road Show; Sackler Opens 'New Window' on Trade, Life in Ancient World
Byline: Roland Flamini, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Before there was Saudi Arabian oil, there was Saudi incense - and it was equally lucrative.
More precisely, the desert region now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia grew wealthy in Greco-Roman times as the world's supplier of incense, centuries before Mecca made it the spiritual heart of Islam and even longer before the discovery of oil.
This is the surprising narrative of Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an exhibit opening next week at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibit, in effect, unearths a hidden history of the Arabian Peninsula through statues, artifacts, jewelry, gravestones, and other objects recently excavated in Saudi Arabia as archaeology has caught up with legends about the country's distant past.
The exhibition, says Sackler director Julian Raby, opens 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 is in fact two exhibitions with - to borrow a musical term - a codetta. The first exhibition, after a nod to some remarkable prehistoric finds, consists of discoveries from the so-called Incense Road illuminating the ancient trade route carrying frankincense and myrrh across the peninsula to Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and the wealth this traffic generated in the cities that once flourished along the way.
The second exhibition focuses on the impact of Islam and the four routes converging on Mecca from the Arab world - from Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The codetta deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, created in 1932, and the archaeological excavations that brought the objects to light.
By allowing the kind of loans and access that made the exhibition possible, the Saudi kingdom, which normally makes almost a fetish of secretiveness, is laying claim to a historic past that goes beyond Islam. It also reflects a growing realization among Gulf Arab rulers that culture is a good way to improve brand image. The Sultanate of Qatar, for example, has opened an Islamic art museum and a museum of Orientalist art, once shunned by Arabs as a distorted 19th century Western depiction of life in the Middle East. The Louvre is establishing a museum in Abu Dhabi. Last year, an opera house was opened with much fanfare in Muscat, capital of Oman.
There is great national pride in this history, said Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler's curator of Islamic art, who had a key role in mounting Roads of Arabia. "What it actually shows is that the Arabian Peninsula was not the isolated backwater but a center of this economic nexus of the ancient world. …