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Roads of Arabia

Roads of Arabia – Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia

The “Roads of Arabia Masterpieces of Antiquities in Saudi Arabia Across the Ages” Exhibition, organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, is one of the most important international Saudi exhibitions that offered the civil heritage of the Kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula for more than five million visitors as part of the most prominent and prestigious international museums in European, American and Asian capitals and cities. The exhibition provided a big and important opportunity to acquaint the world with the civilizations of the Kingdom that also enjoys a wide variety of civil and heritage factors that date back to ancient times.

The idea of organizing the exhibition was initiated in 2006, in implementation of directives of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and upon a proposal by former French president Jacques Chirac while they opened the exhibition of (Masterpieces of Islamic Arts), which was organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in Riyadh in March 2006. Following the generous directives, the exhibition embarked on a series of trips outside the Kingdom through showcasing a large number of artifacts that have exceptional values and highlighting them in major countries of the world, which boosted the Kingdom's international presence and Islamic status as an incubator of the Two Holy Mosques, and based on its economic role and influence in human relations, as well as its distinguished geographical location that constituted a main pillar for cultural and economic exchange between the east and the west and a bridge for civil communication throughout various ages.

The exhibition includes more than 450 rare archaeological pieces that cover eras extending between the Paleolithic era (around one million year B.C.) to pre-Islamic old ages, followed by the early, medium and late Arab kingdoms civilizations, and then the Islamic and medium Islamic eras, until the establishment of the Saudi state with its three development phases until reaching the reign of King Abdulaziz.

The exhibition, since its launch in 2010, has toured 15 European, US and Asian stations, in addition to two domestic stations in King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran and the National Museum in Riyadh. The first station of the “Roads of Arabia Masterpieces of Antiquities in Saudi Arabia Across the Ages” Exhibition was held at the Louvre Museum in Paris in July 2010, followed by la Caixa Foundation in Barcelona, Spain, then the Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, in Russia, and Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. It was also held at Sackler Museum in Washington DC, followed by Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh, the Vittoriano Museum in Rome, then the Fine Art Museum in Huston, Texas, followed by the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and at Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was also held at the National Museum in Beijing, the National Museum in Seoul, the National Museum in Riyadh, the National Museum in Tokyo and at the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum in the UAE.


“What is ancient Italian glass doing in the southern Arabian desert, or for that matter, how did Roman hair fashion look under date palms, and why were ancient Egyptian art styles found beside West Iranian ceramics at Arabian caravan stations? The ‘Roads of Arabia’ exhibition impressively demonstrates that trade, religion, and the drive to power, can overcome even the most difficult geographic obstacles. History is shaped by a series of gradual developments, characterized by their interactive nature. They brought with them changes of style, technology transfer and innovative impulses. Economic arteries, trade routes and pilgrimage stations conveyed trans-regional developments over the millennia into even the deepest desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula and assumed an important role in Arabia’s cultural geography. This archaeological heritage, long blanketed by sandstorms and eradicated from the collective memory, has been the subject of research by Saudi universities and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), in cooperation with international colleagues. Sensational finds were made and are displayed in the ‘Roads of Arabia’ exhibition in Berlin, the only location in Germany, following sojourns in Paris, Barcelona and St. Petersburg.

Trade and pilgrimage routes are topics that permeate the exhibition. It was along these routes that cultural exchange was manifested for more than 7,000 years and local, traditional ways of life competed with trans-regional styles. With the domestication of the dromedary more than 3,000 years ago, long-distance trade became possible even in arid regions, and the demand for south Arabian incense for ritual purposes led to a boom in caravan trading, especially from the 8th century BC onwards. On the ‘Incense Road’, along the southern coast and the western flank of the Arabian Peninsula, to Palestine and Syria, and thus into the Mediterranean region, spices, ebony, silk and precious stones from India and Southeast Asia were also traded. Glass, luxurious commodities and devotional objects came from there to the Arabian Peninsula, similar to glazed ceramics from Mesopotamia and western Persia. When, in late Classical times at the latest, and contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity, ritual incense offerings became less and less widespread, the ‘Incense Road’ lost its importance and thus the urban cultures in the oases along the trade route their economic base. It was not until the rise and spread of Islam from the early 7thcentury onwards that the caravan routes again enjoyed a boom. As the religious centre of the new faith, Muhammad’s domain became the destination for the annual pilgrimages (hajj), to be completed, if possible, at least once in a lifetime by faithful Muslims. In place of the branching network of the ‘Incense Road’, it was now the hajj routes that drove trade. Thanks to the rapid advance of Islam to as far afield as Spain, Central Asia and India in the early 8th century, people and products arrived on the Arabian Peninsula from around the known world.

A main focus of the exhibition lies in the spectacular finds from excavations into pre- and early history, together with ancient records of Arabia. The chronology of the exhibit extends from the oldest period of pre-history, through the beginnings of a sedentary society, up to the development of permanent settlements and the early urban cultures.”

Source: Professor Ali Al-Ghabban, Vice President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

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