"Far are the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon." The English poet and author Walter de la Mare's lyrical thoughts on the mighty peninsula are from a century ago, but might as easily have served as the introduction to a new exhibition that is destined to enthrall visitors to Paris this summer. Experts have been busy for weeks in the bowels of the Louvre, the town-sized museum on the banks of the Seine, preparing more than 300 objects of deep archaeological and cultural significance for the gaze of perhaps 150,000 pairs of eyes.
This ambitious and, in many ways, groundbreaking project uses treasures of what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to trace the history of the cradle of Islam from the prehistoric, pre-Islamic era to the onset of the modern age. Most of these priceless relics have never previously left their place of origin, and many are the product of such recent archeological excavation that their existence has not even been published. How many shades of Arabia, indeed, are reflected in the visual journey through time that these items symbolise?
It took a supreme diplomatic effort to bring about their display, accompanied by vivid photography, in one of the world's grandest palaces of culture. In a fitting climax to years of painstaking work to make that effort bear fruit, the official inauguration of the exhibition brings together the two heads of state, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, tonight.
Routes d'Arabie - or, simply, Arabian Routes - opens to the public on Friday and continues throughout the hot Paris summer until late September. The time of year chosen for the event is in itself exceptional, since summer is invariably avoided for the Louvre's main events, and the museum's officials are keenly awaiting the response of a part-Parisian, part-foreign public. The exhibition's format is depicted by the Louvre as "a series of waypoints along the roads or trails cross-crossing the peninsula", with the remnants of several major oases that were home in ancient times to powerful kingdoms.
"It is the first major exhibition about Saudi Arabia to take place outside Saudi Arabia itself," says Carine Juvin, scientific consultant in the Louvre's department of Islamic art. "It is a proud moment for the Louvre and Paris that they chose to exhibit here for the first time in this way. "We expect it to appeal to visitors generally, but it should be especially interesting to Muslims, whether from France or anywhere else, since Saudi Arabia, despite being the birthplace of Islam, has a history that is not so well known."
The exhibition takes two parts: a pre-Islam period, when these lands already enjoyed some affluence along trade routes linking the early civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levantine coast with the east, and the advent of Islam, when pilgrims heading to and from the Holy sites of Mecca and Medina began to share the roads of Arabia with the merchants. From that "prosperous and flourishing pre-Islamic Arab world", Routes d'Arabie presents evocative Neolithic headstones, immense statues of Lihyanite kings and the precious jewels ands silverware that were buried with the dead, all said to bear to the scale and dynamism of "this civilisation without equal".
With so striking a range of historical gems, any selection of highlights is bound to be subjective. Yet is is easy to imagine clusters of visitors lingering over the anthropomorphic stele, the figure of a human face cut from a slab of stone, from the fourth millennium before Jesus Christ, a fragment of a painted mural representing a man's head from Qaryat al Faw, one of Saudi Arabia's most noted cities from the pre-Islamic age.
Much interest is also likely to focus on such objects from Islamic times as a young girl's tombstone, from al Ma'la cemetery in ninth century Mecca, and a portal to Islam's most scared site, the Ka'aba. Indeed, the period following the establishment of Islam in the year 622 has yielded countless relics of the earliest pilgrimage routes. One of the main staging posts, from the mid-seventh to the 10th century, when it was abandoned as security concerns forced a change of route, was Al Rabadha, 200km east of the Holy City of Medina and it was here, during work starting in 1979, that excavations led to extraordinary finds.
In its catalogue for the exhibition, Louvre specialists describe how, at a number of separate location in this once-rich mining area, archeologists unearthed evidence of mosques, housing, workshops, markets, a cemetery, water tanks and wells. Typically, the buildings, apparently fortified, consisted of sturdy mud-brick walls, the interiors finished with painted plaster, rising from stone foundations.
"The finds at Al Rabadha," the catalogue notes, "are comparable to those at major sites in the Middle East such as Samarra, Susa and Siraf, which have established a picture of ceramic production during the early Islamic period. They attest to the importation into the peninsula by merchants and pilgrims of types of Iraqi ceramics such as opaque earthenware with cobalt blue and lustre painted decoration."
Examples of these ceramics, and other items recovered from Al Rabadha, form part of the exhibition. From another area of excavation, on the Syrian pilgrimage route at Al Mabiyat (now the town of Qurh), come signs of a time of prosperity from the ninth to 12th century, after which it, too, was abandoned. This site, which ancient Arab sources have described as having special importance, was dominated by a citadel and mosque, and excavation yielded objects of metalwork, glass, soapstone and decorative tiles that will be displayed at the Louvre.
The tombstones from al Ma'la cemetery, where many illustrious figures were buried, date from the ninth to 16th centuries, offering what the museum calls "a panorama of the evolution and diversity of Arabic script styles, from the so-called angular or Kufic scripts in the early centuries to the development of more fluid, cursive scripts from the 12th century onwards". As for the content of the tombstones, visitors are promised a "priceless testimony to Mecca society, the ethnic and cultural intermixing that took place in Islam's holiest sanctuary, and how the world of the living regarded death". The name, birthplace, tribe, lineage and perhaps occupation of the deceased were recorded, often with date of death, along with quotations from the Quran and even, on rare occasions, snatches of poetry or messages to passers-by.
The final section of Routes d'Arabie deals with the founding, after a process spanning almost two centuries punctuated by Ottoman pressure and family feuds, of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Some of the exhibits have undergone restoration since being shipped to the Louvre. All are being arranged for display in the Napoléon Hall beneath the museum's renowned glass and metal Pyramid.
For Béatrice André-Salvini, chief curator of the museum's department of near-East antiquities, the exhibition - which is scheduled to move on to Barcelona (La Caixa, Nov 4- Feb 6) and later to three American cities - reflects "exceptional" co-operation between France and Saudi Arabai, owing more than a little to the former French president Jacques Chirac's fascination with Eastern cultures. Both André-Salvini and Carine Juvin cite the crucial role of Prince Sultan bin Salman, a nephew of King Saud and president of the Saudi commission for tourism and antiquities. Their view mirrors a description of the exhibition, by the Louvre's president-director, Henri Loyrette, as a "spectacular culmination" of the cultural collaboration signed by Prince Sultan and the museum in 2004.
Prince Sultan says in a foreword to the catalogue that the exhibits are the fruits of 40 years of excavation, archeological masterpieces from a land that has "always acted as a bridge between the civilisations of several continents". Carine Juvin, who originally studied the history of art but found herself drawn more and more to Islamic culture, admits she has learnt a great deal from her own involvement in the project.
"I hope others, too, will gain fresh information, different ideas and a different picture of the early period of Islam and its development," she says. "And for Saudi Arabia itself, the two parts of the exhibition represent a country that is ready to look back at its past and its cultural heritage, from even before Islam. I think it will find a very strong echo in the public's response." Routes d'Arabie: the Louvre, Paris (0033 (0) 1 40 23 53 17. July 16-Sept 27 Open daily except Tuesday, 9am-6pm (or until 10pm Wednesday and Friday). La Caixa, Barcelona: Nov 4 - Feb 6.