DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Roads of Ancient Arabia

Today, Saudi Arabia's economy is fueled by rich, vast deposits of oil. But centuries ago, the area's wealth was driven by the ready availability of incense, particularly frankincense and myrrh, those expensive Biblical gifts to the Baby Jesus.

Transport of those extremely valuable items created the need for an extensive network of roads which would let merchants distribute wares to Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman world. And it was that traveling network that lent its name to the recently departed exhibition Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Arthur Sackler Gallery.

The exhibition featured stone steles, monumental human statues, haunting gold masks, and finely forged bronze figures, as well as other artifacts and items dating back centuries.

As the show pointed out, the incense industry was the primary reason for the early prominence of the region. Incense was used across the then-known world for everything from sanctifying religious ceremonies to masking the stench of sewage. The incense transport road network was dotted with oases, way stations and flourishing cities. And the constant traveling back and forth led to exchanges that  influenced and expanded art and culture in the region.

Of course, the wealth and success of the area would not have been possible without the camel, often called "the ship of the desert." Arabs first used the camel for its milk, but in the 3rd millennium BC they began domesticating the animals for transport.

Eventually the incense trade diminished, but roads in the region gained an even greater importance with the advent of Islam in the 7th Century C.E. In that religion the 2 holiest cities are Mecca and Medina. In 631, one year before he died, the Prophet Muhammad traveled from Medina to Mecca. His holy journey, now known as hajj (pilgrimage), is a requirement for all Muslims to make at least once in their lifetime. So the roads of Arabia, instead of providing a thoroughfare for merchants, now became a means for pilgrims to make their most sacred trek.

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This exhibit had a special importance for us. We are trying to learn as much as we can about this area since we will be visiting there in September. During our 3-continent trip from Rome to Singapore we will be stopping to visit Jordan, Egypt, Dubai, and Oman. Of course, we will be using more modern methods of transport but who knows ... we may just ride a camel or two before we are done.

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