- The Washington Times - Friday, July 1, 2005

For 1,400 years, from the eighth century B.C. to A.D. sixth century, the incense-rich southern Arabian Yemeni kingdoms of Saba, Qataban and Himyar created the starkly geometricized sculptures of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s “Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade.”

These sculpted gods and goddesses are just now making their debut in the United States, as museums have not showcased Yemeni art as they did that of the better-known Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. With 132 of the best archaeological objects available from Yemeni museums and other institutions around the world, the Sackler has mounted a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit where visitors will find large-scale, blocklike alabaster kings, graceful inscriptions, stylized ibexes and bulls, altars in the shape of temples and statues of wealthy Sabaean women.

Exhibit curator Ann Gunter appropriately begins the exhibit with a photomural of the great Ramlat as-Sabatyn desert the kingdoms surrounded. Wealthy through advanced irrigation systems and control of the frankincense and myrrh trade, they established complex civilizations that produced great cities, palaces, temples and art.

The “Three Kings of Awsan,” which confront visitors entering the exhibit, are quintessential examples of the planar sculptural styles prized by the Sabaeans. Among the best sculptures excavated to date, they are almost fierce with their once-inlaid eyes and stiffly vertical bodies with arms outstretched for now-lost offerings.

Although carved with different dress and hairstyles, the statues, representing three generations of kings of Awsan, retain the geometricized approach to form begun by the Sabaeans in the eighth century B.C. The translucent alabaster from which the kings are sculpted emphasizes their surface details while appearing to radiate a soft glow from within.

Sabaean architects built the impressive Awam temple — the earliest and biggest in Yemen — near their great capital at Marib. The temple was dedicated to the Sabaean kingdom’s deity, the god Almaqah. In contrast to the “Three Kings” sculptures in the previous gallery, the well-preserved, 3-foot-high “Statue of Madikarib” from Marib sports undulating curves. The sculptors carefully delineated the draped skirt and pulled-around lion skin in bronze so as to softly enclose the figure.

More than 400 fragments of sculptures such as this, including smaller humans and animals, were found at the Awam cemetery, which contained as many as 20,000 burials dating from the ninth century to the fourth century B.C. The cemetery’s carefully structured, multitiered tombs confirm an active, firm belief in an afterlife and respectful burials of the dead. Yemeni archaeological digs started only in the mid-20th century, and many more valuable discoveries surely are in the offing.

In the next section, called “Temples,” a small limestone “Temple Altar” reflects the Sabaean love of geometric and formal abstract temple design. The “Ibex Frieze” is outstanding in its sequential carving of five decorated ibex heads. Wall labels in this gallery inform visitors that more than 10,000 South Arabian inscriptions survive. Miss Gunter has selected several especially handsome, elegant early Yemeni examples.

In the “Gods and Goddesses” section, geometricized styles mix with more realistic ones for the first time in the exhibit. Here, unusual objects such as an inscribed hand, an elaborately worked bronze altar with protruding sphinxes, and incense burners confirm worship of a large pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Further examples of the hybrid style include the naturalistic alabaster sun goddess head set in a rectilinear limestone holder, the famed “Female Head” — informally called “Miriam” by her excavators at the Qataban Tamna cemetery — and, mounted nearby, a Tamna stele with the stylized, almost almond-shaped eyes characteristic of earlier periods.

The final power to emerge during the 1,400-year span of the Yemeni kingdoms’ reigns was Himyar. Around the first-century B.C., Himyar’s maritime trade replaced the older, camel-driven ones. Dominating trade from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the kingdom imported both styles and artisans from the Middle East and Europe.

The star of the Himyar section is Dumbarton Oak’s enormous, riderless “Rearing Horse With Himyaritic Inscriptions,” one of just two extant. Scholars believe the “Head of a Man” mounted nearby, complete with a tightly curled Roman hairdo, may belong to the lost rider.

A timeline mounted at the show’s entrance should help viewers keep straight “Caravan Kingdoms’” many names and dates. However, concentrating on the individual objects’ expressive styles and crafting is the most enjoyable approach to the exhibit.

WHAT: “Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. Daily through September 11.


PHONE: 202/633-4880

WEB SITE: www.asia.si.edu

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