Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

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

Oct 24, 2014 – Jan 18, 2015

A Rare First Glimpse Into a Largely Unknown Past

Over the last forty years, archaeologists working in Saudi Arabia have unearthed an astonishing level of artifacts from the peninsula’s ancient past, radically transforming our understanding of the region. Roads of Arabia features more than 200 objects, ranging from excavated stone tools—some dating back more than a million years—to a 17th-century set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary.

Beginning with some of the earliest evidence of humankind, Roads of Arabia goes on to explore the historical and cultural development of Arabia. Tracing ancient incense trade routes and early-Islamic pilgrimage roads that once spanned the peninsula—connecting Arabia to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Mediterranean and beyond—the exhibition offers firsthand insight into the remarkable cultural interactions that occurred between Arabia and its diverse neighbors. Roads of Arabia features eye-opening discoveries like the al-Hamra cube—an object that confirms the integration of Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs into early local religious practice—as well as everyday objects that present an astonishing mix of languages and artistic styles.

As archaeologists continue to unearth important ancient finds beneath the shifting sands of the desert, Roads of Arabia offers a rare first glimpse into the Arabian Peninsula’s fascinating past. Learn even more in the trailer below:


Visitors can explore the recent archaeological discoveries that have radically transformed our understanding of the Arabian Peninsula’s ancient past.

Prehistoric Arabia

In 2010, a camel herder digging for water unearthed a menagerie of stone animals, including an ostrich, sheep, goat, bovine and desert hunting dog (saluki) buried in the sands of the southwestern site of al-Magar.

The largest and most intriguing piece resembled a horse or wild ass. Archaeologists have interpreted fine markings around the muzzle and a ridge down the shoulder as parts of an early bridle. Based on several tools also unearthed at the site, some archaeologists believe the animal forms may date back to 7000 BCE—potentially revising the date of the domestication of the horse from the previous estimate (3500 BCE in Central Asia).

Roads of Arabia features these stone animals and other prehistoric weapons, sculptures, and tools, some of which date back more than a million years. The show also features three human-shaped steles that are among the earliest known artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula. Scholars propose they were associated with religious or burial practices, but whatever their use, these figures, with stylized forms and powerful expressions, possess an arresting immediacy that transcends time and distance.

New insights into humankind’s prehistoric roots have been revealed by the objects unearthed from the Arabian Peninsula—displayed for the first time on the West Coast as a part of Roads of Arabia.

Incense Roads

The incense trade played a key role in the early history of the Arabian Peninsula—bringing immense wealth to developing cities and permitting cultural exchange between diverse civilizations.

Incense was used across the ancient world for everything from sanctifying religious ceremonies to masking the stench of sewage. These aromatic resins, particularly frankincense and myrrh, were collected from certain tree barks found only in the arid regions of southern Arabia and east Africa. As a result, the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula held a near monopoly on this lucrative trade.

A complex network of trade roads connected the Arabian Peninsula to the major civilizations of Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Cities along these roads provided shelter and levied taxes on caravans transporting the much-sought commodity. Other oases and way stations flourished along the trade routes, and bustling markets offered luxury objects created locally and imported from afar.

Gold and precious stones were excavated from sites throughout the peninsula, including elegant gold jewelry, sculpture and architecture recovered at a site outside the city of Thaj. At Qaryat al-Faw, one of the most prosperous cities along the ancient trade routes, archaeologists uncovered artifacts typical of southern Arabia alongside Greco-Roman figurative sculptures. The breadth of the cultural interactions resulting from the extensive incense trade is also evidenced by the diversity of languages and scripts used in Arabia.

The impact of the incense trade on the Arabian Peninsula is significant and richly layered. Roads of Arabia is your opportunity to witness the rare output and exchange of this important cultural crossroads at a critical period in its development.

Pilgrimage Roads

With the arrival of Islam in the 7th-century, the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina became the religious and spiritual focus of both the Arabian Peninsula and the expanding Muslim world.

Since the Prophet Muhammad traveled from Medina to Mecca in 631 CE, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, has constituted one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered a principal duty for all Muslims to fulfill at least once in his or her lifetime.

An extended network of roads quickly developed to accommodate the multitudes of visitors to Mecca. These new roads bringing pilgrims into Arabia supplanted the roads that once transported incense out of Arabia.

Before modern transportation, four key roads reached the holy cities of Mecca and Medina: Yemeni Road (used by travelers from southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa), Damascus Road (originating in Damascus and following the western coast of Arabia), Egyptian Road (bringing pilgrims from Egypt, North Africa and Spain) and the Darb Zubayda Road (used by pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and Central Asia).

Roads of Arabia presents objects recently excavated from sites along these well-traveled roads, in addition to exquisite objects from Mecca and Medina, such as an inlaid bronze incense burner commissioned by the mother of an Ottoman sultan, and a set of gilded doors that once graced the entrance to the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest sanctuary. Tombstones featured from the now-destroyed al-Ma’la cemetery, located north of Mecca, lend a face to the vast number of Muslims who either lived in Mecca or traveled great distances to reach it.

Formation of the Kingdom

An intimate section of the exhibition features the personal possessions of King Abdulaziz (1876–1953). Objects like a gold and silver sword, a 20th-century falcon perch and falconry glove and a gilded Qur’an provide insight into the personal life of the founder of the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Upon returning from exile in Kuwait in 1902, Abdulaziz ibn Abdulrahman ibn Faysal al-Saud fought to occupy a strategic fort, thereby capturing the city of Riyadh—the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia. Seven years later, under the rule of Abdulaziz, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born.

The struggle for unification dates back to the mid-18th-century. But with the establishment of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, for the first time in more than a millennium the custodians of the most sacred sites of Islam—Mecca and Medina—were from the Arabian Peninsula.

Interest in discovering, understanding and preserving Arabia’s ancient and Islamic past has grown steadily, which has led to eye-opening archaeological finds and a better sense of the region’s complex and layered history. Roads of Arabia is your chance to examine these discoveries firsthand and develop a deeper understanding of one of the world’s most significant cultural crossroads.

Main image: Installation view of Roads of Arabia, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2014. Image © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Organizers & Sponsors

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, and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation SABIC granted additional support. Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible with the generous support of Chevron Corporation, Saudi Aramco, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, ExxonMobil, and ATEL Capital Group.

Media sponsors: ABC7, SF Media Co., KQED, and San Francisco magazine.