Exhibition Revealing History of Ancient Arabian Peninsula Trade Routes Opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 2013

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 11/6/2013, 4:57 p.m.
On December 19, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), will open Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the ...
Anthropomorphic Stele 4th millennium BCE This haunting anthropomorphic stele is among the earliest known works of art from the Arabian Peninsula and dates back to some six thousand years ago. Found near Ha’il in the north, it was probably associated with religious or burial practices. The figure's distinctive belted robe and double-bladed sword may have been unique to this region.

On December 19, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), will open Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an exhibition examining the impact of ancient trade routes that traversed the Arabian Peninsula, carrying precious frankincense and myrrh to the Mesopotamia and Greco-Roman world and allowing for a vibrant exchange of both objects and ideas. With the later rise of Islam, pilgrimage roads converged on Mecca (Makkah) and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads. Organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Roads of Arabia features objects recently excavated from more than 10 archaeological sites throughout the peninsula.

Marking the U.S. debut of this unprecedented assembly, Roads of Arabia opened at the Sackler in November 2012, before traveling to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in June 2013. The exhibition will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 19, 2013 through March 9, 2014. An earlier version of the exhibition, developed by the SCTA in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, was exhibited in Paris, CaixaForum in Barcelona, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

“The many surprising discoveries on display in Roads of Arabia open a window onto the culture and economy of this ancient civilization like never before,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “The Sackler Gallery and SCTA organized a truly unparalleled exhibition that will be thrilling to have in Houston.”

From Trade Routes to Pilgrimage Trails

As early as 1,200 B.C., the camel revolutionized Arabian commerce. Highly valued incense was transported from the Horn of Africa and the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula to temples of the royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy mountains, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, these oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production, only to be reclaimed by the desert in subsequent centuries.

Recently discovered objects along the trade routes include alabaster bowls and fragile glassware, heavy gold earrings and monumental statues that testify to the lively mercantile and cultural exchange between the Arabs and their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians and Greco-Romans.

The exhibition then focuses on the impact of Islam after the seventh century, especially the development of pilgrimage trails that lead from major cities, such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, to Mecca, the spiritual heart of the new religion. Highlights in this section include some 20 finely inscribed tombstones from the now-destroyed al-Ma’lat cemetery. These humble yet noble stones lend a human face to the multitudes of Muslims who either lived in Mecca or traveled great distances to reach it. A particularly poignant example memorializes a father and daughter who died on their pilgrimage journey together. Mecca itself is represented by a set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to the Ka‘ba, Islam’s holy sanctuary.