Before there was Saudi Arabian oil, there was Saudi incense — and it was equally lucrative.
More precisely, the desert region now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia grew wealthy in Greco-Roman times as the world’s supplier of incense, centuries before Mecca made it the spiritual heart of Islam and even longer before the discovery of oil.
This is the surprising narrative of “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” an exhibit opening next week at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibit, in effect, unearths a hidden history of the Arabian Peninsula through statues, artifacts, jewelry, gravestones, and other objects recently excavated in Saudi Arabia as archaeology has caught up with legends about the country’s distant past.
The exhibition, says Sackler director Julian Raby, opens “a new window onto a country whose pre-Islamic past is little known to anyone other than a handful of scholars today, and whose Islamic history is often misunderstood.”
“Roads of Arabia” is in fact two exhibitions with — to borrow a musical term — a codetta. The first exhibition, after a nod to some remarkable prehistoric finds, consists of discoveries from the so-called Incense Road illuminating the ancient trade route carrying frankincense and myrrh across the peninsula to Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and the wealth this traffic generated in the cities that once flourished along the way.
The second exhibition focuses on the impact of Islam and the four routes converging on Mecca from the Arab world — from Egypt, the Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The codetta deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, created in 1932, and the archaeological excavations that brought the objects to light.
By allowing the kind of loans and access that made the exhibition possible, the Saudi kingdom, which normally makes almost a fetish of secretiveness, is laying claim to a historic past that goes beyond Islam. It also reflects a growing realization among Gulf Arab rulers that culture is a good way to improve brand image. The Sultanate of Qatar, for example, has opened an Islamic art museum and a museum of Orientalist art, once shunned by Arabs as a distorted 19th century Western depiction of life in the Middle East. The Louvre is establishing a museum in Abu Dhabi. Last year, an opera house was opened with much fanfare in Muscat, capital of Oman.
“There is great national pride in this history,” said Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler’s curator of Islamic art, who had a key role in mounting “Roads of Arabia.” “What it actually shows is that the Arabian Peninsula was not the isolated backwater, but a center of this economic nexus of the ancient world.”
But even Ms. Farhad admits that working on the exhibition “has been a real eye-opener. I was unaware of this history — of what was going on before Islam.”
The extent and impact of the Incense Road has only come to light as a result of archaeological excavations starting in the 1970s. Ancient accounts made mention of the fabled Arabian city of Gehrra. Some 30 years ago, archaeologists discovered the buried city of Taj in the northeast; but the discovery of gold artifacts (on display in the exhibit) has led scholars to believe it to be the lost city of Gehrra.
A substance scraped off the bark of a tree growing only in southern Arabia, incense releases an aromatic smoke when burned. It was, and is, used in worship in churches, temples and at holy shrines — and is a relic of the ‘60s counter-culture.
But in ancient times it was much more in demand as an early air purifier in a toxic environment of open sewage and a population largely indifferent to personal hygiene. It’s estimated that, at its height, the Roman Empire alone consumed 20 tons of incense a year.
The traffic of incense turned way stations into prosperous cities through the imposition of tariffs, and the sale of camels. “The source of the wealth was incense,” says Ms. Farhad. “By the time the incense reached its destination the price had quadrupled.”
Contact with the Greco-Roman world led to an exchange of both objects and ideas. For example, on display are earrings, gold ornaments, alabaster bowls, fragile glassware and colorful fragments of frescoes reminiscent of the paintings seen on Roman coffins in Egypt. Monumental male statues in the show reflect interaction with Egypt and Syria.
The Islamic section includes inscribed headstones from the destroyed cemetery at Ma’lat — including those of a father and daughter who died on the Haj, or pilgrimage. A massive gilded double door from Mecca itself in the 16th century testifies to the Saudi kingdom’s interest in making this show — which will later travel to Houston, Chicago and Boston — a noteworthy one.