A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Roads of Arabia" is Definitely Worth Seeing

A week ago I noted the opening of the"Roads of Arabia" exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, linking to the exhibition's website and a couple of favorable reviews.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I was able to see the exhibit and want to say here that it lives up to its advanced billing. Based around the theme of its title, from the early incense routes across the Peninsula to the pilgrimage routes in the Islamic period, it showcases archaeological finds from Saudi Arabia from early paleolithic tools to the present (the last room is devoted to King Abd al-Aziz Al Saud), but with an unusually strong emphasis on the pre-Islamic period, once rarely mentioned in the Kingdom. While fairly well-known sites like Mada'in Salih are represented, there is material from Tayma and other sites in the northwest, from Gulf coast sites like Tarut Island and other outposts of the Dilmun culture, and later sites on down into the Islamic period.

One is struck by the clear influence of multiple neighboring civilizations. The so-called Hamra Cube, an altar pedestal from Tayma (5th-4th century BCE), mixes clearly Egyptian motifs with Mesopotamian and local themes. (Photo, right, from the exhibition website.) Inscriptions in a range of languages and scripts are on display, with Aramaic and Nabatean mixing with inscriptions in South Arabian script and several in Greek, and at least one in Latin. In the Islamic period there are many early Kufic tombstones and a magnificent set of silver gilt doors made for the Kaaba in the Ottoman period.

I can definitely recommend it if you're in the Washington area or will pass through between now and February 24; it's due to visit Houston, Chicago and San Francisco after here.

And for those who can't, or those like me who can't resist, there's a massive and beautifully produced (if pricy) book of the exhibition.

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