Traveling the “Roads of Arabia”

Sandstone piece of column on black background.
Nabataean Capital, Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia, 1st century CE, sandstone, Al-Ula Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

Sarah Johnson, research assistant, works in the curatorial department on Islamic and ancient Near Eastern art.

Looking at this object, it may be hard to imagine the extraordinary landscape in which it was created. Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the upcoming exhibition Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I visited the site this object came from.

For many people, Saudi Arabia brings to mind images of undulating sand dunes and occasional camels. Instead, we discovered a much richer and more diverse landscape. After traveling to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, my colleagues and I arrived in a lush date-palm oasis called Al-Ula, surrounded by tall cliffs. A long cut in the cliffs, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, provided a passageway for caravan traders in the ancient world and its palm forest provided food and shelter. This column capital was created a few miles from the Al-Ula oasis, in the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh. In an arid landscape of large rock formations and cliffs, hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock faces, creating beautiful architectural vistas as far as the eye can see.

photo of the Tombs at Mada'in Saleh.
Tombs at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

It is hard to describe through photographs the experience of visiting Mada’in Saleh. Walking around the lavish tombs gives you a sense of the enormous wealth of their patrons, the Nabataeans, who controlled trade routes to Rome and also built Petra. This beautiful place changes the way we see objects like this column capital, and reminds us that each work of art is part of a much larger story and landscape.

Large sandstone natural element in desert, with carved entrance.
The Audience Hall at Mada’in Saleh. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stogner.

Stay tuned for more updates on the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia. Learn the full story in the exhibition Roads of Arabia, opening November 17.

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