US & Canada

Uncovering the hidden bodies in Saudi art

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSaudi prince says an exhibition of pre-Islamic artefacts marks a cultural 'revolution' in the Kingdom's understanding of Arabia's past

A new exhibit in Washington shows off an unknown side of Saudi art, and promises to kick off a revolution of cultural and historical pride in the region.

For hundreds of years, popular perceptions of Arab culture have been dominated by Islam. But recent excavations in what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia are revealing evidence of sophisticated and ancient civilizations that are redefining the pre-Islamic era.

A lucrative trade in spices - particularly incense - created a network of caravan trails that stretched from the Horn of Africa to Iran and the Mediterranean. At its centre was the Arabian Peninsula, a cosmopolitan hub of commerce and culture.

"What we see is a Saudi Arabia that was not a closed peninsula. It was actually vitally connected to the rest of the ancient world," says Dr Julian Raby, director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries of Asian Art in Washington.

"And that's an incredibly important lesson because we have begun to imagine Saudi Arabia as always closed, always desert, isolated - almost as a backwater. This gives the lie to that."

'A revelation'

Colossal statues, bronze figurines, glassware, jewellery and mysterious stone steles are among the findings which span more than 6,000 years and are showcased in an exhibition at the Freer and Sackler - Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Image caption This basalt tombstone is from Mecca, 9th Century

In particular, the exhibition demonstrates the importance of the human figure in art before the arrival of Islam in the 7th Century, when artistic expression became largely confined to calligraphy.

Among the highlights is a Hellenic bronze statue of Hercules from around 2CE and a group of muscular stone statues that would have lined the entrance to a temple between the 3rd and 4th Centuries BCE.

"None of this material has been seen in the US. For scholars, it's a revelation," says Dr Raby.

Image caption Mada'in Saleh archaeological site, also known as al-Hijr, in Saudi Arabia is a Unesco world heritage site

"For many people, what happens before Islam is of little or no relevance at all. But the Orientalist tradition in Europe and the States also condemned anything before Islam as being of no material cultural importance at all - because they didn't know what existed."

Part of that ignorance is due to the scarcity of written documents. The excavations that only started 40 years ago are providing the first tangible evidence of a culture before the 7th Century and the revelation of the Koran.

For hard-line Islamists some of the discoveries may prove controversial.

In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, part of a 6th Century Unesco World Heritage site in Afghanistan. The extremists condemned the massive statues because they considered them to be idols.

Cultural kick-off

But the Saudi royal family has embraced the discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula and is vigorously promoting further research. And far from causing religious conflict, says Prince Sultan bin Salman, the ancient artefacts offer a new way of viewing Islam.

"Islam did not cancel the great civilisations of Arabia," he says.

"Islam came as a very proud religion, but it identified these ancient civilisations and did not demean them. We would be doing a disservice to Islam if we thought Islam came to a void, to a clean sheet of paper, to a people who had nothing else."

Prince Sultan is the president of the Saudi commission for tourism and antiquities. He hopes that interest in the past will encourage tourism in the future. He also wants Saudis themselves - especially young people - to better understand their heritage.

"This is a complete revolution in Saudi Arabia when it comes to elevating the culture and the history of the country to the level it deserves," he says.

"Within the next three years, Saudis will wake up to knowledge about their own country that has been missing throughout their lives."

Image caption The Saudi government wants more tourists to visit pre-Islamic sites like Mada'in Saleh

Several new museums are being planned with "big budgets" according to the prince, and international teams of archaeologists are working alongside Saudi scientists and historians. But Prince Sultan says his country wants to maintain control over its own heritage.

"We didn't want to hand over our country to teams from all over the world without us being in the middle of the finding and discovering of Saudi Arabia. But we are now ready. The time is right," he says.

Rewriting history

As well as changing perceptions of pre-Islamic culture, the excavations are offering evidence of how the environment and landscape have changed over millennia.

Today, Saudi Arabia is often dubbed the "Desert Kingdom". But early stone petroglyphs depict people on camels hunting ostriches - a bird that hasn't been able to survive in the region for thousands of years.

Image caption This is part of a horse figure, found at Al-Magar, dated 7,000 BC

Further scientific research is now needed to resolve a developing global controversy over the appearance of the first domesticated horse. Evidence so far points to its emergence in the Eurasian Steppe around 4,000BCE.

But some archaeologists say that a crudely carved stone slab portraying a horse's head and part of its torso found in southwest Saudi Arabia could date to 7,000BCE.

"If they're right, that would indicate the domestication of the horse, in Arabia, much earlier than anybody has ever thought," says Dr Raby.

"These objects indicate how much there is to be learned about Arabia's contribution to the history of mankind."

Experts predict many more important discoveries will emerge from Saudi Arabia in the next few years, an glut of information that could generate another major exhibition.

After centuries of being eclipsed by the bright light of Islam, the region's ancient past is starting to emerge from the shadows.