Traders, pilgrims and kings, these are the people, some renowned in history, some lost in time, who once journeyed on the roads of Arabia. The remnants of these wanderers — the magnificent sandstone statues, the intricate decorated incense burner, the stone carving of a horse, the gold funeral mask — have now found a temporary rest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the exhibition Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Roads of 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, but the arrangement of the over 300 objects for the Houston stop on the tour accentuates the pieces as sculpture and art, alongside their remarkable archeological significance. This arrangement might be most beautifully realized with the grouping at the center of the exhibition of 9th-and-10th-century tombstones from the destroyed al-Ma’lat cemetery, north of Mecca — 20 in all.
A prince of wanderers
Also in town to introduce Houston to these works of art was the president and chairman of the board of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
Prince Sultan is a particularly apt champion of these ancient travelers because he is arguably the most traveled son of Arabia in its great history.
Prince Sultan is a particularly apt champion of these ancient travelers because he is arguably the most traveled son of Arabia in its great history. Besides being a former Royal Saudi Air Force fighter pilot, he was the first Muslim and Arab in space when he was chosen for the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist in 1985, a mission that traveled 2.9 million miles.
After an early viewing of the exhibition, which is thematically set around the two periods of roads, the incense roads of antiquity and the pilgrimage road with the rise of Islam, I had a chance to sit down with His Royal Highness and ask him what he hopes Houstonians will learn from these objects of beauty and history.
Prince Sultan explained how the exhibition might shatter people’s preconceptions that contemporary Saudi Arabia sprang into being only once oil was discovered.
“People have always thought of Saudi Arabia as a place of nothingness, that Islam came to a place of nothingness,” he says, but thousands of years before its oil wealth “spices and silk” transported by camels and caravans across the deserts made the cities that grew along these trading routes into economic powerhouses.
Prince Sultan believes the exhibition illustrates that “Saudi Arabia was always very much active on the world stage. I’m talking about the world stage in terms of the ancient world and the modern world and will have a much bigger world going forward into the future, not just in region sense, but also in the international sense.”
A change in perception
When I asked if the pilot and former astronaut might have a different perspective on these ancient peoples on the move, he jokingly assured me that pilots always feel they have a different perspective “on everything,” before turning serious and into something of a poet.
“I fly my U.S.-made Cessna Caravan over my country and I fly very low to the ground,” Prince Sultan described. “I see people in the desert. I find a place and put it down — I’m trained to do that. I get out of the airplane and talk to them, milk their camels with them, have a camel milk and dates. It changes your life. Your life is not formalize anymore. It becomes a good life. You really can go and see things and feel things nobody else can do.”
“When you see Earth from space what you see is the beautiful blue and multicolored planet, but the most amazing thing is not the planet itself, the most amazing thing is the blackness of space."
His time aboard Discovery also changed his perception when viewing the distances that separate people. He reiterated to me some ideas he first voiced after coming back to Earth: “The first day or two we all were pointed to our country. By the third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were all pointing to one planet, one Earth. It was absolutely like a revelation. I still believe in this. I’m driven by this as a person in my political views, in my views about war and peace, in my views about people.
“When you see Earth from space what you see is the beautiful blue and multicolored planet, but the most amazing thing is not the planet itself, the most amazing thing is the blackness of space. That’s what hit me the most, really. This beautiful planet but it’s right there by itself floating in this incredible universe.”
Prince Sultan ended our conversation with a description of the latest wave of Saudi Arabian travelers, the students crossing oceans and continents to study at universities around the world and especially in the United States. Many of them are given Saudi government scholarships with the idea that they will come back “with knowledge, a degree and an understanding of the world. Though separated by millennia, perhaps these students are not so different from their ancient ancestors whose lives we may glimpse in this extraordinary exhibition.
Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through March 9.