An exhibition entitled "Roads of Arabia", which runs at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin from 26 January to 9 April, is showcasing the archaeological heritage of Saudi Arabia. This striking collection contains some surprising and sensational treasures and reveals a desert kingdom in transition. By Marian Brehmer
Paris, Barcelona and St Petersburg have already hosted an exhibition that is providing a rare glimpse into the cultural and historical heritage of Saudi Arabia. Even experts in the history of Islamic Art have reportedly been astonished by what they have seen.
"Roads of Arabia. Archaeological Treasures from Saudi Arabia" opened at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin's Pergamon Museum on 26 January. With more than 400 exhibits from the Arabian Peninsula on display, the exhibition covers a wide time span from antiquity to the modern Islamic era. While most of the exhibits are on loan from Saudi museums, around eighty have come from collections in Berlin.
Even for the renowned Museum of Islamic Art, with its record number of visitors last year (732,000), Saudi Arabia is uncharted territory. Director Stefan Weber sees his museum's role as one of public education. "We want to add a cultural and historical dimension to the debate on Islam," he explains.
Decades of ignorance
The museum, which will move into the north wing of the Pergamon Museum after renovation in 2019, has a broad palette of exhibits on display that cover most of the Islamic world. Until now, Saudi Arabia has been something of a blank on the canvas, so the timely arrival of "Roads of Arabia" is a stroke of luck for Berlin, bringing an exhibition that perfectly complements the existing collections. We know so little about the place, almost nothing. For decades, researchers have just supposed that it had little to offer," says Weber.
This attitude is now changing. This new exhibition fundamentally alters perceptions of Saudi Arabia, transforming its image from that of a clichéd barren desert nation into one of a country that has made a significant contribution to the history of art. According to Weber, after many years of neglect, the kingdom has more recently been taking significant steps to preserve its heritage.
That this is indeed the case is underlined by the fact that Ali al-Ghabban, vice president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, has come to the press conference at the Pergamon Museum. Seated at a table in front of two massive stone pillars, he expresses his gratitude for the opportunity "to present Saudi Arabia's glorious history to the German public." What Saudi Arabia has become today, he says, is due, to a great extent, to the country's past.
Should this be seen as an opening up of the country's history to the world? "It is never too late for that. Our past is important for our future. We also see it as an economic resource," explains al-Ghabban. The country is now creating new space for its history, with eleven new museums presently under construction.
Of course, the exhibition also provides an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to work on its image, and Stefan Weber is familiar with the sort of criticism such activity attracts. He has no easy answer for those who question the morality of having dealings with an authoritarian state such as Saudi Arabia – a question that naturally arises – but it does rather rankle with the director that culture seems to be constantly in the firing line, while the use of Saudi oil in cars seems rarely to rate a mention. He chooses his words carefully when he talks of "transition through cultural history" – archaeology as a medium for change?
Altered perception of history
"Roads of Arabia", a journey along the ancient trade and pilgrim routes, begins with the earliest traces of human activity. Visitors then progress chronologically, from prehistoric arrowheads and statues of human figures dating back to the fourth millennium BCE, on to artefacts from the ancient caravan cities. The fact that the exhibition, which was more than four years in the planning, focuses strongly on the ancient world, is something that can in no sense be taken for granted in the heartland of Islam.
In Islam, the pagan period prior to the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad is referred to as "Jahiliyya", often rendered as "time of ignorance" in English. From the orthodox viewpoint, the pre-Islamic period was an era of barbarism and polytheism. The exhibition, however, provides us with an alternative to the darker vision of "Jahiliyya" by taking a broader view, one that emphasizes the historical continuities of the Arabian Peninsula. This, particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia, can certainly be considered as a positive sign of change.
The next part of the exhibition takes the visitor on to the giant statues from the kingdom of Dedan and the first millennium BCE. Placed for maximum contrast in black reflective space, the colossi stare rigidly down at the visitors. Their stony features clearly indicate ancient Egyptian influences, evidence that their makers were open to artistic styles from outside their own region.
Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to the historical pilgrim routes. Already important trade routes in pre-Islamic times, it was only under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates that a comprehensive infrastructure grew up along their periphery to supply the needs of the throngs of pilgrims making their way from Damascus and Baghdad to Medina. Everyday objects and imported ceramics bear witness to the lively social life these early travellers must have encountered along the way.
Journey to Mecca
Like latter-day pilgrims, the exhibition visitors descend a small staircase to find themselves facing the entrance to the Kaaba. The sheer scale and grandeur of the entrance, caught in the spotlights of this intelligently conceived and designed exhibition, momentarily stops visitors in their tracks.
The solid silver door with its floral ornamentation and calligraphy dates back to the Ottoman period and was removed from the Kaaba during renovation work. At the side of the space hangs a large curtain. Just as with the black cloth or kiswa that surrounds the real shrine, this too is replaced each year. In accordance with a tradition that goes back to pre-Islamic times, the kiswa is cut into pieces and distributed among people considered to be honest and decent. Individual fragments are exhibited here alongside illustrated editions of Iranian pilgrim books.
The artefacts from the Kaaba and the historical development of the city of Mecca represent a first for a German museum. "In Germany, Saudi Arabia tends to be seen in terms of a few clichéd definitions: sand, princes, and the fact that women are not allowed to drive," says exhibition curator Joachim Gierlichs. "Roads of Arabia" presents us with an illuminating and very different perspective on a country, we may think we know, but that in many respects remains very foreign indeed.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de