Nearly five decades ago, Baltimore medical scientist Giraud Foster traveled halfway around the world to become the personal physician to Imam Ahmed, the last king of Yemen. During his stay, Mr. Foster and his wife, Carolyn, began collecting ancient stone carvings from South Arabia, some of them acquired as gifts by the king. They continued to buy them at auction while living in London, before the American government clamped down on the import of such antiquities.
Happily for the public, the Fosters’ 61-piece collection now resides in Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum where it is being unveiled to visitors for the first time on Sunday. This exhibit of South Arabian art, which is largely unknown in the West, offers many delightful surprises. Chief among them are stylized, alabaster sculptures that look as modern as works by Brancusi or Picasso.
In some ways, this show provides a parallel to the National Gallery of Art’s current blockbuster of once-hidden treasures from Afghanistan. Like that larger exhibit, the Baltimore show also focuses on a trade-rich center of ancient civilization in Asia, but with artifacts mostly free of the Hellenistic and Roman influences so prevalent in the Afghan antiquities.
Yemen wasn’t positioned on the overland Silk Road between East and West but the Incense Road winding around the Red and Arabian seas. It produced fragrances such as frankincense and myrrh and shipped them by camel and boat to cities around the Mediterranean and to Mesopotamia and India.
These sweet-smelling substances, used to mask bad odors and repel pests, reaped riches for Arabian traders. Such wealth led ancient Romans, who tried unsuccessfully to colonize the desert peninsula, to call Yemen “Happy Arabia.”
Growing from the incense trade were stone fortresses, multistory houses and huge temples, as evident from photographs of archeological sites in the exhibit. Cemeteries near these religious structures were designed to emulate cities with above-ground tombs arranged around streets.
Some of the most striking pieces in the exhibit are funerary sculptures made to commemorate real men and women, not gods, and placed in niches within the tombs. The facial features of these 3-D portraits were originally painted and their eyes inlaid with glass and semiprecious stones.
The exhibit offers the opportunity to reconstruct these original details on a computer screen, but to contemporary eyes, the embellishments seem unnecessary.
Even unpainted, the stone heads with their long necks and big eyes exude a haunting, primeval quality. As noted in the exhibit, this appeal led some present-day art dealers to clean the pieces before they were sold and destroy historical evidence of their colored finishes.
Still shining through the unadorned stone are the distinctive personalities of these ancient Yemenis. One frowning male head expresses a grumpy disposition, others appear more contented, with puffy cheeks and slight smiles above their beards.
More compelling still is a stone relief of a woman, perhaps a priestess, with her right hand raised and her left clutching a sheath of wheat. Given its refinement, the piece may have been chiseled in the first century by the craftsmen of a royal workshop. Inscribed below the female likeness is the name of her clan, a common practice for these funerary portraits.
Contributing to the beauty of the Arabian sculptures is the indigenous calcite-alabaster from which they are carved. This translucent, cream-colored stone glows in direct sunlight, imbuing even the plainest objects with a mysterious radiance.
As evident in several small, keystone-shaped slabs on display, the alabaster carvings were sometimes left unadorned in temples and tombs to express a divine presence through their luminous surfaces.