In ‘Roads of Arabia,’ dusting off ideas about a kingdom and civilization


’Fragment of a wall painting with a man's head.’ Qaryat al-Faw, Saudi Arabia, 1st to 2nd century CE. Paint on plaster. H x W: 53 x 36 cm. National Museum, Riyadh. (Courtesy National Museum, Riyadh/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)
November 14, 2012

A major exhibition of ancient objects excavated in the Arabian Peninsula opens Saturday at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“Roads of Arabia: Archeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” organized by the Sackler Gallery and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, is the first U.S. venue for the exhibit and part of the gallery’s 25th-anniversary celebration.

The collection includes more than 200 objects, ranging from alabaster bowls, gold earrings and bronze statues to early 20th-century photographs of Mecca, Medina and Riyadh. Officials said they hope the exhibit will enhance understanding of a nation often viewed simply as the world’s largest exporter of oil.

“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,” said Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, son of the Saudi crown prince and president of the Saudi tourism commission, who was in town Wednesday to promote the exhibit.

“We’ve always been at the crossroads of civilization, and we are now at the crossroads of international affairs and economic affairs,” said Prince Sultan, who is perhaps best known to Americans for his 1985 flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which made him the first Muslim and Arab, and the only royal, in outer space.


’Head of a Man.’ Qaryat al-Faw, Saudi Arabia, 1st century B.C.E to 2nd century CE. Cast bronze H: 40 cm. Department of Archaeology Museum, King Saud University, Riyadh. (Courtesy Department of Archaeology Museum, King Saud University, Riyadh/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

“To understand Saudi Arabia, its future, its role in the world,” he said, “is also to understand that it was not a country that was invented with the discovery of the first oil well.”

The exhibit runs through Feb. 24. It will then travel to museums in Houston, Chicago and Boston through early 2015. Highlights of the exhibit and photo slideshows, interactive maps and videos can also be seen at roadsofarabia.com.

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