Exhibition Revealing History of Ancient Arabian Peninsula Trade Routes Opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 2013

Roads of Arabia marks first U.S. tour of an exhibition that debuted at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery last fall

On December 19, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), will open Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an exhibition examining the impact of ancient trade routes that traversed the Arabian Peninsula, carrying precious frankincense and myrrh to the Mesopotamia and Greco-Roman world and allowing for a vibrant exchange of both objects and ideas. With the later rise of Islam, pilgrimage roads converged on Mecca (Makkah) and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads. Organized by the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Roads of Arabia features objects recently excavated from more than 10 archaeological sites throughout the peninsula.

Marking the U.S. debut of this unprecedented assembly, Roads of Arabia opened at the Sackler in November 2012, before traveling to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in June 2013. The exhibition will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 19, 2013, through March 9, 2014. An earlier version of the exhibition, developed by the SCTA in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, was exhibited in Paris, CaixaForum in Barcelona, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

"The many surprising discoveries on display in Roads of Arabia open a window onto the culture and economy of this ancient civilization like never before," said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Sackler Gallery and SCTA organized a truly unparalleled exhibition that will be thrilling to have in Houston."

From Trade Routes to Pilgrimage Trails
As early as 1,200 B.C., the camel revolutionized Arabian commerce. Highly valued incense was transported from the Horn of Africa and the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula to temples of the royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy mountains, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, these oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production, only to be reclaimed by the desert in subsequent centuries.

Recently discovered objects along the trade routes include alabaster bowls and fragile glassware, heavy gold earrings and monumental statues that testify to the lively mercantile and cultural exchange between the Arabs and their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians and Greco-Romans.

The exhibition then focuses on the impact of Islam after the seventh century, especially the development of pilgrimage trails that lead from major cities, such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, to Mecca, the spiritual heart of the new religion. Highlights in this section include some 20 finely inscribed tombstones from the now-destroyed al-Ma’lat cemetery. These humble yet noble stones lend a human face to the multitudes of Muslims who either lived in Mecca or traveled great distances to reach it. A particularly poignant example memorializes a father and daughter who died on their pilgrimage journey together. Mecca itself is represented by a set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to the Ka'ba Islam’s holy sanctuary.

A third section introduces the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and explores the history of archaeology through photographs, travel books, maps and objects.

Exhibition Website
Audiences at home can travel Roads of Arabia online through the exhibition's website, RoadsofArabia.com, which introduces object highlights and history through photo slideshows, interactive maps and videos.

Organization and Funding
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. The Boeing Company, Khalid Al Turki Group and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) granted additional support.



In Houston, generous funding is provided by Mary Lawrence Porter and Oliver Wyman.

About the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, theater, two art schools and two libraries, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers some 65,000 works and spans the art of antiquity to the present.