Roads of Arabia

Last month, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum unveiled its newest exhibition. Roads of Arabia showcases more than 200 recent archaeological discoveries, ranging from mysterious stone slabs to a set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary. We sat down with curator Dany Chan to learn more about these objects and the exciting insights they offer on a largely unknown past.

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum

Joie de Vivre Hotels: What does Roads of Arabia tell us about the Arabian Peninsula’s rich diversity and evolution that we didn’t know before?

Dany Chan: The majority of the objects in this exhibition date to pre-Islamic times, and they reveal that the Arabian Peninsula was not an isolated region. In fact, it was connected to other ancient civilizations through networks of trade and pilgrimage roads. We find human shapes in the form of stone or bronze, and more than ten different languages that were in use. The objects also suggest artistic borrowing and inspiration from neighboring cultures.

Inscriptions in Old Arabic

JDV: Where does Greco-Roman influence appear in the regional art?

DC: Two sites along the incense roads had strong connections with the Greco-Roman world during the first centuries CE: Qaryat al-Faw in the south and Thaj in the northeast.  From Qaryat al-Faw, there is a cast-bronze head that has the facial features reminiscent of Greco-Roman busts—but the curled hairstyle was distinctively Arabian. The cast-bronze technology was also an import. From Thaj, a gold funerary mask and glove was found on the skeleton of a young girl. The gold mask and glove recall burial traditions in Greece and Macedonia, but the Thaj mask and glove were most likely made in Arabia (with locally sourced gold) and scaled to the size of the young girl. Furthermore, the facial features represented on the Thaj mask are more Arabian in style.

Incense burner, 1649. Turkey; Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922). Iron, gold, and silver. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2999.
What do these objects tell us about the development of incense trade routes? What about incense’s varied uses?

DC: Incense was used for nearly everything in the ancient world. Frankincense and myrrh were used in cooking and masking odors. The Babylonians and Assyrians used incense in religious ceremonies. Egyptians used them as insect repellent, salves for wounds, and for embalming; frankincense was charred and ground into kohl eyeliner. The Greeks and Romans used incense to treat a variety of ailments including indigestion, coughs, and even bad breath.

Due to the overwhelming functions of incense, the trade was extremely lucrative. And since frankincense and myrrh only grew natively in southern Arabia and east Africa, the southern Arabian tribes had a near monopoly of the cultivation and trade of incense. However, it was a long journey to cross the peninsula; every stop the caravans made along the way levied taxes. By the time the caravans reached their destination ports, the value of incense rose a thousand fold! But that brought in a lot of wealth for those cities and town along the trade routes.

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum
How do these objects challenge accepted theories, particularly about the earliest domestication of horses?

DC: There is one Neolithic piece that has put the Arabian Peninsula in the middle of a hot scholarly debate: a partial sculpture of a possibly bridled horse found in al-Magar in southwestern Arabia. The site is currently dated to 7000 BCE and may alter the history of horse domestication, currently theorized to have occurred in Central Asia in 3500 BCE.

Chalice, 200–300 CE. Saudi Arabia; Qaryat al-Faw site. Silver, partly gilded. Courtesy of Department of Archaeology Museum, King Saud University, Riyadh, 34F16.
The rise of Islam in the seventh century lead to the building of pilgrimage routes from major cities to Mecca. How is Mecca represented in the art and artifacts on display here?

DC: There is a group of royal-commissioned gifts that have been offered to the holy site of Mecca. They include large gilded candlestick holders, an intricate inlaid bronze incense burner, a silver lock and lock plate, and the pièce de résistance: a set of silver gilded doors that once hung on the Ka’ba, Mecca’s main religious site.

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum
San Francisco presents a unique challenge for priceless objects such as those on show in the Roads of Arabia exhibition. How did the Asian Art Museum prepare to protect these in an earthquake-prone city?

DC: Like our artworks on display in the second- and third-floor galleries, the objects in this exhibition (and every exhibition) received special mounts that are secured to a wall or weighted base. For Roads of Arabia, the three colossal sculptures (each standing about nine feet tall and weighing about 2,000 pounds) received an extra treatment: Each sculpture is mounted to a platform that uses the latest innovation in base isolation technology.

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum

JDV: What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

DC: I hope that our visitors have a better understanding of the Arabian Peninsula’s role as a cultural crossroads over the thousands of years that this exhibition covers.

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be on show through January 18, 2015, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets start at $10.

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