Funerary Mask, 1st century CE: In the summer of 1998, a group of Saudi archaeologists stumbled upon a magnificent royal tomb outside Thaj, a city in northeastern Arabia. Datable to the first century CE, it belonged to a young girl, whose body was covered with gold, rubies, and pearls. The funerary objects buried with her were decorated with Hellenistic motifs, which must have been imported.
The most important city in the northeast was Gerrha. It was also known as one of the wealthiest centers that rose to prominence during the Hellenistic period (first and second centuries CE). Scholars have identified the site of Thaj, where they have found a royal tomb with precious objects from the Mediterranean world, with the legendary Gerrha.
No one is exactly sure where Gerrha was located, because it wasn't directly located in the sea, but had an oasis. The researcher Abdulkhaliq Al Janbi argued in his book that Gerrha was most likely the ancient city of Hajar, located in modern-day Al Ahsa, Saudi Arabia. Al Janbi's theory is the most widely accepted one by modern scholars, although there are some difficulties with this argument given that Al Ahsa is 60 km inland and thus less likely to be the starting point for a trader's route, making the location within the archipelago of islands comprising the modern Kingdom of Bahrain, particularly the main island of Bahrain itself, another possibility
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 Arabia to the temples and royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy, mountainous landscapes, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production.
One of these major commercial hubs was Qaryat al-Fau, the capital of the Arab Kingdom of Kinda, a resplendent city of markets, multi-story buildings and more than 120 water wells. Artifacts from the site demonstrate the influence of cultures in their imagery, such as drinking cups made of dark blue glass, popular throughout the Roman Empire. Although seemingly isolated at the edge of the daunting desert known as the “Empty Quarter,” the community of Qaryat al-Fau was connected to the cultures of southern Arabia and civilizations far to the north.
Archaeologists continue to unearth important finds beneath the shifting sands of the desert. Roads of Arabia offers a timely first glimpse into the Arabian Peninsula’s richly layered and fascinating past.
Anthropomorphic Stele, 4th millennium BCE: This haunting anthropomorphic stele is among the earliest known works of art from the Arabian Peninsula and dates back to some six thousand years ago. Found near Ha’il in the north, it was probably associated with religious or burial practices. The figure's distinctive belted robe and double-bladed sword may have been unique to this region.
Incense Burner, 4th-1st century BCE: This incense burner uses architectural motifs and has a serpent running up one side. The many incense burners found at Qaryat al-Faw, a major trading center in the southwest, indicate that the population both traded and actively used incense in their own rituals. Incense burners were often inscribed with the owner’s name, a dedication to a deity, or a list of incense types and perfumes popular at the time.
Bronze Statuette of Heracles, 1st-3rd century CE: The small exceptional statue of the Greek hero Heracles is identifiable by his lion skin and club. Originally, he would have held a drinking vessel in his right hand, an attribute of Heracles-Bibax or the drinking Heracles. This form of Heracles was associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of banqueting and wine, whose cult was popular in Qaryat al-Faw.
With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Mecca (Makkah) became the religious and spiritual focus of both the Arabian Peninsula and the expanding Muslim world. Prior to this period, the “roads” carrying incense led from Arabia to surrounding regions; after the coming of Islam, new “roads” bringing pilgrims from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and beyond converged on Mecca. Instead of the anthropomorphic forms that dominated the pre-Islamic period, the emphasis shifted to the written word, inspired by the revelation of the Koran.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in 570 CE. At that time, Mecca was a trading center for local goods and the site of the Ka‘ba, an important pagan shrine. Before his death in 632 CE, the Prophet designated Mecca as Islam’s holiest city and the destination of the hajj, a pilgrimage required of all Muslims. In addition to circumambulating the Ka‘ba, pilgrims are to visit several sites in Mecca as part of the hajj: they drink from the Zamzam well, which is said to have miraculously provided water for Hagar and her son Ishmael when they were lost in the desert; they throw stones at three columns to ward off temptations; and they camp at Mount Arafat, believed to be a meeting place of Adam and Eve. For more than 1,400 years, Mecca has served as the religious heart of Islam, bringing together Muslims from all over the world.
In 622 CE the Prophet Muhammad made the most momentous journey in the history of Arabia. He and his followers left Mecca (Makkah) for Medina in a migration known as the hijra. This was a pivotal moment in the development of the Muslim community, and it is little wonder that it marks the launch of the Muslim hijri calendar, for indeed it was the inception of a new era, Year One. The century that followed saw Islam extend its reach from the Straits of Gibraltar to the deserts of the Taklamakan. Islam, in other words, emerged in an effulgent blaze, and what preceded it seems cast in deep shadow.
Incense Burner, AH 1049/1649 CE: Commissioned by the mother of the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40), this exquisite incense burner is one of the many gifts presented to the shrine at Mecca, the spiritual center of Islam. The elegantly designed object also attests to the continued importance of incense in the Islamic world.
Tombstone of al-Ghaliya, 9th century CE: Dating back to the early years of Islam, the countless tombstones in Mecca attest to the immense hardships endured by pilgrims. At the same time, they lend a human face to the multitude of devout visitors to the holy site. Most of the tombstones are hewn out of simple, irregular blocks of stone and the inscriptions are fitted to the size and shape of the surface. Although the stonemasons must have worked with simple tools, they succeeded in achieving an astounding range and variety of highly original formats and scripts.
Archaeologists continue to unearth important finds beneath the shifting sands of the desert. Roads of Arabia offers