UPDATE: Having seen “Roads of Arabia” (www.asianart.org) today, I’d like to recommend it both for the objects displayed brilliantly by exhibit designer Marco Centin and for the fascinating, in-depth documentation that helps turn the country and the region from a suspicious and opaque subject into a multifaceted, rich lesson in history that ranges from thousands of years ago to the present (although, expectedly, not dealing with the ever-present headlines about political and military matters).
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (http://www.asianart.org/exhibitions_index/roads-of-arabia) has been making the rounds in Europe and the U.S., and now its ninth and final stop brings it to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Oct. 24 through Jan. 18.
Besides showing relatively recent discoveries of ancient artifacts, the exhibit also has an obvious agenda of counteracting a narrow view of the kingdom within the confines of oil, religion (a major bastion of the Sunni branch), and conflict.
Historical trade routes and the worldwide hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) have placed Saudi Arabia’s region at the crossroads for centuries.
Yet, even with the largest annual gathering of people in the world, more than 2 million pilgrims, the young country – established in 1932 – and the 20,000-year-old history of the region remain relatively little known in the West.
Museum director Jay Xu noted the timing of the show: “With the world’s recent focus on the region and Hajj pilgrimage in October, ‘Roads of Arabia’ comes to the Bay Area at a perfect time.”
It was called in Europe “a charm offensive from Riad.” High Saudi government officials have been promoting the exhibit, led by Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the country’s Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (called Saudi Commission in the U.S.), and the first royal and Muslim astronaut. His deputy, Ali Al Ghabban, the original curator of “Roads of Arabia,” is also visiting San Francisco.
Dany Chan, Asian Art Museum’s assistant curator for exhibition projects, says “There’s an element of ‘Indiana Jones’ to this exhibition. The art and artifacts – many are recent discoveries – in ‘Roads of Arabia’ are fascinating, and they’re reshaping the way we think of this region’s important role in the ancient world.”
Objects in the exhibition, such as colossal statues, Greco-Roman bronzes and pages from early Qur’ans, testify to a lively mercantile and cultural exchange among civilizations from antiquity through the early centuries of Islam.
The Asian connection is enhanced by the fact that Islam has been an important cultural force in much of that continent for more than 500 years. Today, far more Muslims live in other parts of Asia (205 million in Indonesia, 23 million in China, etc.) than in the Arab areas of Asia such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
The exhibit features artifacts unearthed over the last 40 years, more than 200 objects of the show range from excavated stone tools – some more than a million years old — to a 17th-century set of gilded doors to the entrance of the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary.
The exhibit is divided in galleries dealing with “Prehistoric Arabia,” “Incense Roads” (pre-Islamic period), “Pilgrimage Roads,” and “Formation of the Kingdom,” displaying possessions of King Abdulaziz (1876–1953), who founded the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia.