Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

From haunting stone steles to luxurious gold masks and imposing monumental statues, Roads of Arabia offers a glimpse into the untold story of Saudi Arabia’s cultural past. The groundbreaking exhibition includes more than 280 objects, ranging in date from Arabia’s prehistory to the early twentieth century. All of these objects are making their debut appearance in the United States.

Often mistaken for a vast, empty desert, the Arabian Peninsula has a rich and diverse landscape and culture. In antiquity, it enjoyed a monopoly on the incense trade, which gave rise to a network of oases. These settlements, in turn, were linked by a series of caravan routes that eventually connected to the great metropolitan centers of the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. The lucrative incense trade encouraged both the flow of imported luxury objects into the peninsula and the development of a rich, local tradition with its own distinct artistic language.

In the seventh century CE, Islam spread from Mecca to the rest of the region; the incense roads were supplanted with pilgrimage roads that brought countless travelers and their goods to Arabia. This new religious and trade network fostered its own unique artistic tradition, which spread throughout the Islamic world. Over the past forty years, archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have begun to uncover this cultural history. Surprising objects such as rare figurative wall paintings and colossal statues have radically changed our understanding and perception of Arabia’s past. Many of the objects in the exhibition were discovered only in the past ten years and hint at the still largely unknown history of ancient Arabia.

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco are gratefully acknowledged as principal co-sponsors of the tour of Roads of Arabia in the United States. Sponsorship is also provided by The Olayan Group and Fluor Corporation.