Treasures revealed under Saudi sands

Barbara G.B. Ferguson

Published — Wednesday 11 September 2013

Last update 2 October 2013 1:20 pm

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Visualizing Saudi Arabia with vast amounts of oil and gas under its desert sands is easy; but thousands of years ago before the country struck black gold, caravans of camels crisscrossed the region trading incense – for silks, spices and ivory, bringing prosperity to the land while also introducing different cultures from distant kingdoms.
Centuries later when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought Islam, pilgrimage roads led to Makkah and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads.
Secrets remained buried under the desert sands from these trade and pilgrim caravans until recently — when treasures, preserved for millenniums under the brutal Saudi sun, were discovered.
Roads of Arabia,’ is a thought-provoking exhibit of Saudi Arabia’s past, organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).
On display at The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — one of five North American venues to host Roads — following its premier at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. are relics are from various regions of the Kingdom. The exhibition that runs through Nov. 3.
Roads of Arabia, is chock-full of unexpected treasures; including jewelry, ceramics, stone and bronze sculptures and even Hajis’ tombstones.
About 320 bjects, some nearly 7,000 years old, were excavated from several archaeological sites throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Many have never before been publicly displayed, and most have never been seen outside of Saudi Arabia before 2010; when Roads first opened in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Tales of the discoveries boggle the mind. The treasures at Al-Magar were found when a camel herder fell upon a large prehistoric menagerie of animal statues, including a saluki dog, a camel, a goat, eagle and ostrich — all dating back to the Neolithic period, around 7000 BC.
It was the construction of a causeway linking Tarut Island to the mainland, that enabled workers to find a hoard of relics that included soapstone jars, snake-covered bowls, leopard-like cats, lion-headed eagles and other mythic figures.
(This led some archaeologists to believe that Tarut was likely the capital of the early Dilmun civilization, dating around the middle of the third millennium BC — or 4500 years ago.)
Outside the city of Thaj, archaeologists discovered the first century grave of a young royal. In her tomb lay gold, pearls and precious stones, including a Hellenistic gold funerary mask, which led scholars to suggest that Thaj may be the lost city of Gehrra.
What intrigues archaeologists about Thaj, is that the burial was inspired by ancient Hellenistic practices, even though the tomb was found in the northeastern desert of Arabia.
Qaryat Al-Faw is equally remarkable. Known as a wealthy “paradise” city and located in the southwest corner of the Kingdom, massive and finely detailed statues of giant men were exhumed. Found nearby was a millennium-old funeral bed, one of only four known to exist in the world.
“We hope to enlighten people about this terra incognito,” said Dr. Sandra Olsen, Carnegie’s director of the Center for World Cultures. “Many think of Arabia as being extremely remote, but in ancient times it was a bridge, a crossroads and a center.”
Olsen, whose work includes examination of ancient Saudi petroglyphs – or rock art – was crucial in bringing ‘Roads’ to Pittsburgh.
“Maybe I’m a little prejudiced but to my mind, this is the most wondrous exhibit,” Dr. Olsen told reporters. “For hundreds of thousands of years, the Arabian Peninsula was a key to the history of the world.”
Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, shares Dr. Olsen’s enthusiasm. In Pittsburgh, during the exhibit’s inauguration, he told reporters: “This is a new window to see a country that has never been thought of or seen in the arena of heritage, development of civilization and culture.
“To understand Saudi Arabia, its future, and its role in the world, is also to understand that it was not a country that was invented with the discovery of the first oil well,” said Prince Sultan, who is perhaps best known to Americans for his 1985 flight on the space shuttle Discovery.
Dr. Ali Al-Ghabban, vice president of antiquities and museums at the SCTA and co-curator of Roads, also sees the exhibit as an education tool:
“Most Westerners believe that Saudi Arabia is only a desert land with oil fields, and don’t know that Saudi Arabia was a bridge between the East and West,” Dr. Al-Ghabban told journalists. “We played this role in the fourth millennium BCE, and we continue to play it. We would like to show everyone — foreigners and Saudis — how we have participated in the history of humanity, not only in the Islamic period, but even before Islam.”
Several of the excavated objects in the exhibit prompt questions rather than answers. The camel herder’s discovery of a stone horse statue near Al-Magar, for example, has created quite a stir.
“Archaeologists suggest there are reins on the horse,” Dr. Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of Islamic Art, told reporters during the ‘Roads’ press preview at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery earlier this year. “This is important because this means the sculpture is of a domesticated horse. Scholars have long debated where horses were first domesticated; most believe it was in Central Asia.
“But now, if this discovery is correct, it means the horse was domesticated in Arabia before Central Asia.” That’s 2,000 years earlier than anyone else in the world.
Another of the exhibit’s many surprises are the imposing 8-foot-tall red sandstone statues of men, embodying Lihyanite kings dating back to the 4th-to-3rd century B.C.
‘Roads of Arabia,’ is divided geographically and historically in three parts. First are the artifacts from the network of oases that linked caravan trails to metropolitan cities enabling the cross-cultural exchange of ancient trade routes.
The second section focuses on the impact of Islam after the 7th century, pilgrimage trails that lead from major cities such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad to Makkah.
Highlights of this section include some 20 finely inscribed tombstones from the now-destroyed Al-Ma’lat cemetery- a tribute to the Hajis from more than 50 nations who perished during their long pilgrimages to Makkah.
These tombstones also display some of the earliest examples of Arabic script, which Dr. Farhad described as “critical and invaluable for scholars.”
Another treasure in the exhibit is a pair of wooden doors that once guarded the entrance to the Holy Kaaba. The handsome preserved, gilded doors are covered with silver leaf and inscriptions. Donated by Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, who reigned in the 17th century, the doors stood in place until they were replaced in 1947.
The exhibit’s third section introduces artifacts that focus on the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. “It offers a glimpse into Saudi Arabia before its transformation from oil revenues,” said Dr. Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries.
Maps, travel books, photographs and even several personal effects used by King Saud, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, are on display.
Roads of Arabia can be viewed online at the exhibition’s website,, it features highlights and history through photo slideshows, interactive maps and videos.
The exhibit will be at Pittsburgh until Nov. 3; then travels to Houston, San Francisco and Boston.

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