'Roads of Arabia' exhibit opens at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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For more than 40 years, archaeologists combed the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, mapping ancient cities and massive tombs carved into boulders. They unearthed camel trade routes dating back to 1200 B.C. and tombstones engraved with beautiful calligraphy telling the stories of the arduous pilgrimages millions of Muslims embarked on to reach the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia, a relatively new nation created in 1932, is building its own museums to display these groundbreaking artifacts as testimony to the nation's complex cultural history both as an important trade center and as the heart of Islam. Since 2010, more than 200 precious objects have been on tour in major cities around the world. Last weekend, the exhibition opened at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland and will remain there through Nov. 3.

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud led the Saudi delegation that arrived in Pittsburgh to formally open the "Roads of Arabia" exhibition. Pittsburgh is the second U.S. stop after the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He said he wanted the exhibition to reach "the middle of America," adding that Pittsburgh was selected for its "great history" and "pool of institutions."

It's an opportunity for area residents to learn much more about Saudi Arabia, said Sandra Olsen, director of the museum's Center for World Cultures.

"The kinds of things we know about Saudi Arabia are truisms -- desert, oil, camels, people dress differently, it's a center for Islam -- these are all true, but there is so much more to the kingdom than that," she said.

"This is a way of letting [our community] know more information that's not really covered in our standard education."

In an interview Friday, the prince said people might be surprised to know Saudi Arabia has the fastest economic growth in the Mideast and that "the land with all the oil" is moving toward alternative energy sources. This exhibition contains other surprises:

• A 9,000-year-old carved stone fragment of a horse with bridle suggests a much earlier domestication of the species than previously thought.

• Prehistoric tools and stone artwork point to early migratory groups that may have crossed the narrow strait across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula instead of along the northern land route by the Nile River.

Ms. Olsen was a critical link between the Saudis and the Carnegie. While visiting a Saudi university museum in 2009 to study rock gardens, she saw conservators working on this exhibit and began to network with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the organization the prince leads. The exhibit debuted in the Louvre in 2010.

"Maybe I'm a little prejudiced, but, to my mind, this is the most wondrous exhibit," she said. "I think it's very timely and very relevant. It helps in a way that no television program could even do."

For hundreds of thousands of years, Ms. Olsen said the Arabian Peninsula was "a key to the history of the world." With Africa to the west, Asia to the east and Europe to the north, Saudi Arabia "couldn't be more central."

Merchants trekking through the region on camel caravans traded incense -- important in a wide variety of religions -- from Ethiopia and southern Arabia to Babylonia, Syria, Egypt, Greece, India and even China, where merchants would exchange silks, spices and ivory.

Central settlements such as Qaryat al-Faw were known as wealthy "paradise" cities, Ms. Olsen said. Qaryat al-Faw was a perfect stopping point for merchants coming from the Mediterranean and Yemeni areas.

A first-century B.C. bronze head of a man, found in Qarayat al-Faw, is testament to these cultural influences. The headdress is that of a Graeco-Egyptian statue, but the original treatment of the curls shows local artisans' work was influenced by Graeco-Roman models.

Although the head has a deep cavity on the side of its cheek from the weight of being buried, the damage is not nearly as bad as on a 7-foot red sandstone statue from the fourth century B.C. This statue doesn't have a face, and this defacing was on purpose. When a new Lihyanite king took the throne, people would vandalize the statues of the previous king by defacing or beheading them, Ms. Olsen said.

A 1998 archeological discovery of a royal tomb from the first century outside the city of Thaj contains a gold mask and glove that covered the body of a 6-year-old girl. Interestingly, this burial was inspired by ancient Hellenistic practices even though the tomb was found in a northeastern desert of Arabia. The mask can be seen in the exhibit along with other jewelry found in the tomb.

The artifacts found after the rise of Islam feature more calligraphy than figurative art. Tombstones -- engraved with epigraphs and sometimes poetry -- from the now-destroyed al-Ma'lat cemetery represent men, women and children from more than 50 nations who died making the long trek to Mecca, where Muslims from all over the world still gather.

During their pilgrimage, Muslims are also to circumambulate the Ka'ba, an important shrine. The door that formerly stood at the entrance of the Ka'ba is now at the Carnegie Museum. Donated by Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, who reigned in the 17th century, the wooden door is covered with silver leaf and inscriptions and was used until around 1947.

The third section of the exhibit explores the creation of Saudi Arabia's current kingdom through photographs, travel books, maps and even personal affects used by the first king.

"This is really a special opportunity for visitors to take advantage of," Ms. Olson said. "Even though these are ancient artifacts, I see them as offering Americans and Saudis an opportunity to connect, to understand each other's cultures better and just to grow our relationship."

After Pittsburgh, the exhibit will travel to Chicago, Boston, Houston and San Francisco.

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Marina Weis: 412-263-1889 or mweis@post-gazette.com.


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