Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabiaroads arabia

June 22–November 3, 2013 
R.P. Simmons Family Gallery

This landmark exhibition presents more than 7,000 years of largely unknown cultural history of the Arabian Peninsula. Roads of Arabia examines the impact of ancient trade routes that traversed the peninsula, carrying precious frankincense and myrrh to the Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman world and allowing for a vibrant exchange of both objects and ideas. With the later rise of Islam, pilgrimage roads converged on Mecca (Makkah) and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads.

Roads of Arabia is an unprecedented assembly of more than 200 recently excavated objects, none of which had been seen outside of Saudi Arabia until 2010. These objects include:

  • prehistoric tools
  • vessels in ceramic, stone, glass, and bronze
  • inscriptions, seals, and tablets in a variety of media
  • jewelry of bone, shell, gold, precious stones, and silver
  • stele, commemorative slabs made of stone or wood
  • funerary objects
  • figural sculpture in stone, bronze, and ceramic, ranging in size from miniature to monumental
  • bas-relief and architectural sculpture
  • incense burners, lamps and other household items
  • fresco
  • coins
  • inscribed tombstones
  • silk and textiles

Carnegie Museum of Natural History is one of only five North American venues to host Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Learn more about the national tour of the exhibition on the Roads of Arabia website.

Roads of Arabia: From Trade Routes to Pilgrimage Trails

As early as 1200 BCE, the camel revolutionized Arabian commerce. Highly valued incense was transported from the Horn of Africa and the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula to the temples of the royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy mountains, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, these oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production, only to be reclaimed by the desert in the subsequent centuries.

Newly rediscovered objects along the trade routes include alabaster bowls and fragile glassware, heavy gold earrings, and monumental statues that testify to the lively mercantile and cultural exchange between the Arabs and their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, and Greco-Romans.

The second part of Roads of Arabia focuses on the impact of Islam after the seventh century, especially the development of pilgrimage trails that lead from major cities, such as Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad, to Mecca, the spiritual heart of the new religion. Highlights in this section include some 20 finely inscribed tombstones from the now-destroyed al-Ma’lat cemetery. These humble yet noble stones lend a human face to the multitudes of Muslims who either lived in Mecca or traveled great distances to reach it. A particularly poignant example memorializes a father and daughter who died on their pilgrimage journey together. Mecca itself is represented by a set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to the Ka‘ba, Islam’s holy sanctuary.

The third section introduces the creation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and explores the history of archaeology through photographs, travel books, maps, and objects.


Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco are gratefully acknowledged as principal co-sponsors of the tour of Roads of Arabia in the United States. Sponsorship is also provided by The Olayan Group and Fluor Corporation. The Boeing Company, Khalid Al Turki Group, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation SABIC, and Saudi Arabian Airlines granted additional support.

Local sponsorship of Roads of Arabia is provided by Buchanan, Ingersoll, Rooney PC; Koppers; People’s Gas; and American Middle East Institute. Additional support is provided by the Layan Cultural Foundation.

Click here for more information about the Roads of Arabia opening gala event.

Roads of Arabia national sponsors 
Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney PC Koppers Peoples Natural Gas American Middle East Institute
and Layan Cultural Foundation