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Pathways to Enlightenment: Learning from “Roads of Arabia”
I was going to construct an introduction to this article in which I mused with great self-deprecation about my embarrassing lack of knowledge regarding most things concerning the Middle East. The plan was to reveal my total ignorance towards that region of the world, and how this ignorance is only enhanced by the inclusion of sweeping stereotypes involving wealthy sheiks, camel rides across dunes, hookahs and embroidered rugs, geysers of fresh oil, and perhaps even the odd presence of Islam-fuelled terrorism. I was going to note all of these factors with a healthy dose of ridicule aimed squarely at myself, as I clearly embody the narrow-minded, perpetually-generalizing, Western-centric adventurer who believes each image and headline carefully selected by the agenda-perpetuating media, and how I should feel tremendous shame for having no proper knowledge of what is often referred to as “the cradle of civilization.”
After a few sentences in which I went a few rounds with myself in some kind of self-constructed intellectual boxing ring, I realized how absurd such an introduction would be, and how unfair such statements would be to myself, to readers, and to inhabitants of the Middle East in general. As I wrote these sentences that dripped with shame and scorn, hovering on the nasty precipice of self-loathing,I actually chafed at having to portray myself as some kind of apologist, when the truth is simply what it is: I don’t know very much about that part of the world, I am quite unfamiliar with its geography, I have never been there, I may never go there, but a great deal of my life’s task consists of acquiring knowledge with every step of the way. You see, I have voluntarily chosen a comparatively unconventional lifestyle, and thus, I absorb both the nuances and the directness of my surroundings everywhere I go; part of this process involves confronting the fact that I simply can’t, and don’t, know everything about everything, but I can do my absolute best to learn what I can with just a small measure of effort and application. Like every other human, there are many things I’m good at and of which I have a deep understanding, just as there are other things that absolutely escape me.
...for this basic of human conditions, I don’t think I should apologize, no matter who is making up the guidelines for what constitutes common sense, fundamental knowledge, or simple awareness.
Head of a man
Obj. No. 155
1st century BC–2nd century AD, Cast bronze, H. 40 cm
Department of Archaeology Museum, King Saud University, Riyadh, 119F13
Having said all that as my new preamble, I should now mention that my knowledge of Saudi Arabia has been quite limited to the encounters and experiences that I have been fortunate enough to have had as an ESL teacher; a line of work to which I dedicated nine years of my life. The Saudi men and women that I have taught all had a few characteristics in common, which, I think, allows me to apply a slightly generalized tint to my perspective on that culture: all of them, and I do mean all, appear to be unfailingly charming, well-mannered, and extremely receptive to all forms of humour (including my own frequently-coarse witticisms). I only know Saudi Arabia and its citizens in a very contemporary context. I only know the love and devotion my students have all verbally demonstrated towards their country. I only know their descriptions of the modern way of life there, which sounds fast-paced, high-brow, enjoyable, and intense. I also do not know any colleagues who have gone there to teach, although many have ventured over to the UAE to make pocketfuls of money teaching English to students in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Given the fact that I know very little about Saudi Arabia, I leapt at the opportunity to visit the grand Pergamon museum to take in an exhibition entitled “Roads of Arabia”, only vaguely aware that this display was showcasing the cultural history of this very ancient country through a sort of archaeological timeline, taking us along its old trade routes and stages of commercial development. I would like to also add that the Pergamon, like many of the museums here in Berlin, is an almost devastatingly beautiful venue. You see, my approach towards these exhibitions is to avoid speaking to anyone who has either seen them already, or has even been to the host venue. I enjoy attending these presentations entirely blind so as to gain the most high-impact and untainted of first impressions, and so I entered the vast, solid, regal structure of the Pergamon with a sense of excited anticipation at what lay ahead. Clearly, this would not be just a mediocre exhibit; the Pergamon itself would frown at a half-hearted assembly of artifacts within its much-too-dignified concrete walls.
Incense burner commissioned by the mother of Sultan Murad IV
Obj. No. 326
Iron alloy, damasquined decoration in gold and silver (?), H. 14; max. L. 38 cm
Hujra, sanctuary of Medina
National Museum, Riyadh, 2999
The overall layout and presentation of this exhibition was, in a word, magnificent. Even the entrance itself was intriguing. I walked up an elegant marble staircase covered in a classic red carpet that led to the exhibition proper, the walls sparsely adorned with simple pictures of Saudi artifacts that dated from extremely ancient (6,000 B.C.) up to the 20th century, which was--of of course--at the very top of the staircase, where the presentation began. Placed strategically at the entrance, a large, raised map of Saudi Arabia was provided for visitors to examine, as well as a short description of what visitors were about to see, which was a focus on archaeological material found in the KSA (as the country is officially called Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).
With the red-carpet introduction, as well as the map and explanation outside the exhibition entrance, interest was built immediately; whomever designed this knew exactly what they were doing in order to make it more of an experience than simply a museum offering. I was immediately impressed by both the Pergamon’s majesty and the almost ingenious organization of the presentation’s visual composition...and I had not yet set foot into it!
Tombstone of Hasa, daughter of Musa, son of Salam
Obj. No. 301
9th century, Basalt, 40 x 18 cm
King Fahd National Library, Riyadh, 314879
“Roads of Arabia” was, overall, a stunning and continuous journey through various eras of Saudi Arabia, featuring artifacts, archaeological discoveries, and write-ups for nearly everything on display. It was arranged chronologically, from as far back as the curators could go (6th and 5th millennia BC) to the present, not unlike the “teasers” we received whilst climbing the red-carpeted staircase. Spectators could walk from room to room, every detail of the display laid out thoughtfully and with strong consideration for things like colour schemes that would, and could, best enhance the offerings on display.
Upon entering the exhibit, I was struck by a few items based on not only their antiquity, but their appearance: the ornately-painted ceramics on display from the Early Dynastic II period, particularly the vessels and jugs, were absolutely beautiful. There was nothing crude or slapdash or cheap-looking about them; they were true works of art. I isolate these ceramics, these very old and preserved ceramics, in my review because when I attend temporary exhibitions or museums that permanently house ancient artifacts (i.e. day-to-day cooking appliances and household items from the Bronze Age, or ancient Greek or Roman or Egyptian times), after a while, I tend to adopt a very dismissive, weary perspective on them, which could best be summed up in the thought, You’ve seen one old vase, you’ve seen them all. I am not saying I am proud of this, but it’s straight from my heart. These Saudi vessels were simply lovely, unique, and had a sort of artistic sensibility that grabbed me in a way that many other antiquated items often do not.
Obj. No. 28
4th millennium BC, Sandstone, 92 x 21 cm
al-Ma’akir/Qaryat al-Kaafa, near Ha’il
National Museum, Riyadh, 997
I was also greeted, right at the entrance, by these enchanting, mysterious, carved-stone images called stelae (the plural of “stele”, the first time I had ever encountered the word), which are funerary monuments of the deceased. They are stylized human faces with expressions unlike anything I’ve seen before, very unlike the almost implacable, stoic faces of, for example, the ancient Egyptians.. These stelae, the three of them, are hypnotic in their beauty and minimalism and almost amused facial depictions, carved into simple lines hinting at a belt and dagger. The key word which bears repeating is minimal; these stelae are not meticulously detailed, but rather effective in their overall simplicity.
Obj. No. 29
4th millennium BC, Sandstone, 57 x 27 cm
al-Ma’akir/Qaryat al-Kaafa, near Ha’il
National Museum, Riyadh, 998
After the first room--with its stelae, its preserved arrowheads and blades, its vessels--I moved through various rooms that adhere to the timeline of Saudi Arabia’s development, such as the Tayma’ room (which was an ancient oasis town in lower Northern Arabia) and to the room of Qaryat Al-faw, containing more objects from daily life from about the 3rd-century AD to the 3rd-century BC, such as jewelry, kitchenware, and ceramics. These particular items had a distinctly--almost surprisingly--Mediterranean influence, further underscored by the presence of bronze statues depicting Harpocrates and Heraeles. I learned that the conquest of Western Asia by the Macedonian army (under Alexander the Great) brought Greek art, culture, and even language to this region for a long spell, hence its noticeable influence on the Saudi way of life.
I then made my way into the room of Dedan, which was an oasis of al-’Ula. This was one of the most striking rooms, in my opinion, almost mesmeric in its presentation. Against walls and a floor that resembled gleaming black onyx, I was treated to the presentation of these grand, faceless statues carved from red sandstone--faceless because, like many ancient carvings of human forms, the features on the visage are the most delicate and likely to be victim to erosion or damage--and their imposition is almost threatening. As if the aesthetic design of this room weren’t enough, it was enhanced by the piped-in background strains of...not quite music, not quite sound effects, but something in-between which can only be described as a low, pulsating, swelling hum accompanied by wind or a breeze, lending the overall display a sense of subtle intimidation contrasted with slight somnolence. These statues, according to the text in the room, were offering to the god Dhu Ghabat.
Obj. No. 232
1st century AD, Gold, H. 17.5 cm; W. 13 cm
Thaj, Tell al-Zayer
National Museum, Riyadh, 2061
...and this is where my ignorance towards Saudi Arabian culture seemed to be mercilessly highlighted, as I was genuinely surprised to learn that this was a resolutely pagan, polytheistic nation for a truly long time. In my various encounters with the Saudi students I introduced several paragraphs ago, another character trait they all shared was an astounding piety unlike anything I have ever witnessed in even the most dedicated, dogmatic Christian; their complete dedication to Allah (God), to the religion of Islam, can be startling to even the most jaded professor of theology. This unwavering, uncompromised faith in (and loyalty to) their spiritual belief system is sometimes humbling, sometimes downright alarming, but always worthy of every ounce of respect. Speaking as a woman who doesn’t stake claim to any organized religion--choosing to extract what I feel are worthwhile philosophies and practices and norms from many of them, and then amalgamating them into something perfectly suitable to my individual needs--I have nothing but respect for such a fervent connection to Allah, to being a Muslim, to what can only surely be the truth as they know it. Learning from this exhibition that Saudi Arabia was not always shrouded in the omnipresence of Mohammed was one of the best pieces of knowledge I walked away with; but again, I refuse to be an apologist for my ignorance towards the fundamentals and history of this culture. I came to this exhibition to educate myself on a place that had triggered interest thanks to my encounters with several of its citizens, and this is precisely what I was doing.
Door of the Ka’ba
Obj. No. 323
Hammered, engraved and gilded silver leaf on a wooden core
342 x 182 cm
National Museum, Riyadh, 1355
This led to some of the final few rooms, in which, of course, the spread of Islam was presented to the public through the use of texts and objects. Islam was brought to this country in the 7th century AD, and it hasn’t looked back since. Multiple copies of the mighty Koran were on display, from the supremely modest to the highly-lavish, as well as various photographs depicting the holy city of Mecca, where each Muslim must make a pilgrimage to at least once in his or her lifetime (called a Hajj) for the ultimate act of worship to Allah. There were two artifacts that were breathtaking in their beauty: one was the original door of the Kaaba hailing from 1635. The Kaaba is the cube-like structure located in the centre of Mecca, which many of us have seen in photographs, and which is considered the most sacred object in Islam. Given this knowledge, it was quite incredible to see one incarnation of this object mere centimetres away from the public.
The second object took a great deal of restraint not to reach out and touch: a portion of a previous curtain used to cover the Kaaba door, called a kiswah. This was, to say the least, marvelous. Measuring 633 by 330 centimetres (roughly 20 feet tall by 10 feet across), the urge to just feel the black silk and gold piece of fabric, to feel the weight, texture, and thickness of this simply beautiful piece of embroidery, was intense. The love, care, and focus that was infused into the creation of this kiswah was evident, and the tactile sensation one must surely receive upon simply holding it in the hands is bound to be immensely gratifying. Alas, out of respect and decency (and museum protocol), I did not touch the kiswah.
“Eye-stele” human face and Aramaic inscription
Obj. No. 107
5th–4th century BC, Sandstone, 326 x 15 x 72 cm
Tayma’, stray find
Tayma’ Museum, T/M/119
The final portion of this large, gorgeous, educational, aesthetically-pleasing exhibition showed how the KSA was founded in 1932 (again, an event I did not know happened so recently). The presentation finally concluded with pictures and explanations of various German projects taking place in the KSA, as well as a short film entirely in Deutsch.
All in all, the “Roads to Arabia” exhibition at the mighty Pergamon was one of the most satisfying and impressive I have yet attended, for myriad reasons. The amount of information I absorbed was beyond my expectations, and has actually inflated my curiosity about the KSA to such an extent that I would not be entirely against the idea of traveling there for either business or pleasure; I had no idea that such a breadth and richness of history was connected to this particular part of the world. Furthermore, not a single room, piece of text, or photograph of this presentation involved the depiction of wealthy sheiks puffing away on hookahs whilst reclining on expensive rugs, further strengthening my resolve to distance myself from any potential humiliation regarding the trite stereotypes I had been fostering.
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