Roads of Arabia


This exhibition at the Sackler Gallery presents archaeological artifacts from Saudi Arabia. The selection of finds dates from the paleolithic period until the founding of contemporary Saudi Arabia in 1932 by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.

"Roads" are used as a framing device for the exhibition, conceptually linking trade routes carrying frankincense and myrrh through ancient Arabia to those carrying pilgrims to Mecca in the Islamic period. In a sense, these paths made many of the artifacts possible. For example, a Greek inspired funeral mask dating to the first century shows the influence of trade, just as the ornate doors of the Kaaba similarly display the influence of religion.

Some of the most astonishing and beautiful objects in the exhibition are the anthropomorphic stelae and statues. These serve as examples of an aesthetic dead end, due to the aniconist injunction of Islam. The prohibition against idolatry and the depiction of sentient beings may be called into question by the appearance at the end of the exhibition of photographs and items belonging to Abdul-Aziz bin Saud himself. Rather than a purely theological matter, this moment serves as a reminder of the contradictions that exist in the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Roads of Arabia is at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. until the 24th of February, 2013.

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