Saturday, December 29, 2012

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 24, 2013

This enormous exhibit uses archeological finds to tell the history of Saudi Arabia from prehistoric times to the present.  This show is filled with antiquities, so if you're as much a fan of these as I am, you won't want to miss this.

Prior to the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, Saudi Arabia was the sole cultivator of incense (including frankincense and myrrh - very seasonal), and roads led from Saudi Arabia to other parts of the inhabited world.  Once Islam had taken hold, the roads led from other parts of the Islamic world to Mecca.  Whether for trade or for religion, Saudi Arabia seems to have been a center of travel in this region for a very long time.

The show is set up chronologically, so we begin thousands of years ago.  In the first room, there are several steles.  I'm not sure if it's the dramatic lighting, or their inherent power, but they make quite an effect.  Archeologists believe that they may have been used in funerary rites - perhaps they are representations of the deceased?  Further on, we see tools, some as old as 1.3 million years.  Amazingly enough, the arrowheads on display look as if they could have come from North America - just goes to show that good ideas are not the possession of only one group of people.

For the first time on public display, we see carvings found by a camel herder in 2010.  These carvings are of animals, and have caused archeologists to re-think the timeline around the domestication of various beasts.  These date to 7000 BCE, and although the carving is not so skillful as others I've seen, the fact that people were taking the time and effort to carve anything so long ago is amazing.  It makes you realize that the desire to create art, something beautiful, just for the sake of looking at it, is universal and not a modern concept.

The show is huge - on two levels and multiple rooms on each floor.  There are pieces from an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, possibly the original home of the Dilmun civilization, celebrated in Mesopotamian texts, and later located in Bahrain.  There is a discussion of the lost city of Gerrha, more prosperous than other cities of the time, now vanished.  Lovely jewelry shows an Hellenic influence, another result of trade.  Several colossal figures dominate one of the rooms on the lower level; even if you're merely skimming the exhibit, you don't want to miss these.

Verdict: This is a show well worth your time.  If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly.  To see everything, you'll need 1.5 - 2 hours, easily.

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