Arts & Theater

Art review: San Francisco’s Asian Museum hosts ‘Roads of Arabia’

This stone artwork, circa 7000 B.C., is in the “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” exhibit.
This stone artwork, circa 7000 B.C., is in the “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” exhibit. National Museum of Saudi Arabia

“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is a curious show. It’s as much a history lesson as it is an art show.

Spread throughout four galleries and a courtyard, the show includes artifacts that span centuries, from archaeological excavations begun in the 1970s that continue today.

It begins with tools – choppers and scrapers – made by prehistoric, indigenous peoples of the species homo erectus who migrated to the Arabian Peninsula from East Africa as early as 1 million B.C. The tools are accompanied by a fascinating video that shows how the tools were made and how they were used to cut meat and get to the marrow bones of animals.

Nearby are some of the earliest known artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula: three human-shaped steles (vertical slabs of stones used for commemorative purposes) that date to 6,000 years ago. The flattened, simplified figures are primitive and evocative of tribal members’ attempts to memorialize the dead.

Many of the artworks in the show are either from or inspired by cultures the early people of the area traded with – Mesopotamia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Rome, etc. – along the Incense Roads. With the domestication of the camel, trade routes were established to carry highly valued incense – frankincense and myrrh – to distant lands. Made from the bark of trees that grew in arid regions of Southern Arabia, incense was in demand for a variety of purposes, from sanctifying religious ceremonies to masking the stench of sewage.

This lucrative trade led to the creation of a complex networks of roads to foreign lands and the exchange of cultural artifacts – ceramics, glass, jewelry, statuary, fragments of wall paintings, and textiles from far away places. Among the treasures in the show are a tiny glass flask from Egypt resembling a date, and a cylindrical vessel with palm tree that shows Iranian influences.

Also on view is a statue of a bald man with bulging eyeballs that resembles Mesopotamian sculptures. Nude except for a waist band, he stands in for the common man of the Early Dynastic period, circa 2600-2500 B.C. Though influenced by a foreign culture, the statue is thought to be an original work produced locally.

The linguistic diversity of Arabia is exemplified by stone inscriptions in Latin, Greek, Nabatean, Aramaic and other languages in use in the region in the first millenium B.C.

Outside the Osher Gallery in the Courtyard, a gigantic male figure from 400 to 200 B.C. shows the artistic impact of Egypt and Archaic Greek sculpture in its frontal pose and finely articulated musculature. At 7 feet, it is an imposing and regal sculpture.

Objects from the Incense Roads include blown glass flasks used to store precious oils and perfumes, a small silver chalice, and a small statuette of Heracles from the first to third centuries that shows the strong influence of the Greco-Roman world on Arabic culture.

Nearby are pieces of exquisite jewelry, a gold mask and gold glove from a family tomb discovered in 1998 in Thaj. Among the remains were a 6-year-old girl to whom the small mask and glove may have belonged.

After the demand for incense declined and travel across the Red Sea increased, the Incense Roads were slowly replaced by Pilgrimage Roads, which arose with the dawn of Islam in the seventh century. One of the pillars of Islam calls for the faithful to make pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if health and finances allow.

After the coming of Islam, figurative art disappears, and the word becomes paramount in artifacts from the period. A series of tombstones with inscriptions from the Quran add a human element to the show. Among the stones are a memorial to a father and daughter who died on their pilgrimage journey together.

The primary importance of religion in Saudi Arabia is evident from the number of pieces of devotional significance in the show. Particularly impressive are a pair of gilded doors from the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary in Mecca. Donated by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV, who reigned from 1623 to 1640, the doors were used until around 1947, when they were replaced.

Other objects from the Ottoman period include an elaborate incense burner, a turquoise blue jar, and oversized copper candleholders.

The traveling show, which originated from the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, culminates in a gallery devoted to the formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 by King Abdulaziz, who reconquered Mecca after having been in exile in Kuwait for many years. On view here are an elaborately decorated, gilded Quran, Abdulaziz’s gorgeous robe, his sword, his falconry glove and his falcon stand, emphasizing the importance of falconry in Saudi culture.

This show offers insights into the culture of a country in a part of the world that is much in the news now. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the history and culture of Saudi Arabia will want to see this show. The show is accompanied by an exhaustive, liberally illustrated 607-page catalog.

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

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through Jan. 18, closed major holidays

Cost: $10-$15; children 12 and under and Asian Art Museum members are free; free the first Sunday of each month

Information: (415) 581-3500,