Routes d'Arabie, an exhibition of Saudi artefacts at the Louvre Museum in Paris ,opens with two marvellous anthropomorphic stelae - ancient stone slabs dating back to the fourth millennium BC, depicting men with remarkably modern features. One wears an expression of surprise, mouth and eyes round and clustered close together. The other appears to frown, with his head tilted pensively to the right, an eyebrow ever so slightly raised in a look of worry or weariness.
The stelae are just two among more than 300 objects included in Routes d'Arabie: Archéologie et Histoire du Royaume d'Arabie Saoudite (Routes of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), which culminates in a day-long symposium at the end of this month, and travels to four more museums in Spain and the United States. The stelae, discovered on excavation sites in north-west and south-east Saudi Arabia, respectively, represent the earliest points in the exhibition's chronology. They also mark the start of a remarkable and almost entirely unknown story, which, among many other things, convincingly cancels out some of the more commonly held stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula: that it lacks a tradition of figurative representation, that it is (and has long been) closed off to cosmopolitan influence and that it is ultimately little more than an empty desert with oil, a territory devoid of historical or cultural significance.
Almost none of the objects in the exhibition have been shown outside their country of origin before. Almost all have been unearthed in joint archaeological excavations carried out only in the past 40 years. Some are so newly discovered that they have yet to be published, making the doorstop-sized Routes d'Arabie catalogue well worth its weight in terms of documentation and analysis. The show ranges from diminutive vessels to colossal statues, from utilitarian tools to rare jewels, and from the familiar features of Pharaonic, Indus and Greco-Roman relics to scarcely (if ever) seen styles exclusive to the Arabian Peninsula. As such, the exhibition broadens our visual vocabulary of the ancient world, and, perhaps more importantly, deepens our understanding of Saudi Arabia as a place with a much more complex history and a far more interconnected legacy of relations in the region than previously thought.
In both content and design the exhibition, which draws to a close in 10 days' time, follows a series of converging lines. First are the paths of migration taken by men coming from Africa to settle in Arabia during the Early Palaeolithic era, leading to the development of pastoral economies in around 5,400 BC. Illustrating this period of migration and settlement are weapons associated with hunter-gatherer communities and examples of cave art representing the area's animal life.
From the fifth to the second millennia BC, fishing communities in the Gulf established lasting trade links with southern Mesopotamia. Some of the most visually striking exhibits in Routes d'Arabie date from this era. A fragment of a chlorite vase with the relief of a figure kneeling and smiling with raised arms, was discovered on the island of Tarut, off the coast of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. It is thought to have been imported from the Indus Valley and, combined with other objects and artefacts, evinces a vast maritime trade network including what are now known as Bahrain, the UAE, Iraq, Iran and India.
Some of the most delicate and intricately embellished objects in Routes d'Arabie tell the story of the incense trade: burners (brûles parfum), one the shape of a bangle made of humble copper alloy, another cut like a decagon (with ten sides) and beautifully fashioned from silver and gold. The resins used to produce frankincense and myrrh came almost exclusively from eastern Yemen and southern Oman. In the first millennium BC, several kingdoms developed in the oases of the Hejaz region of north-west Arabia. Thanks to staging posts that were erected along caravan routes from the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia, the Levantine coast and the Mediterranean world - and, of course, to the collection of taxes and tolls and incidents of banditry - these kingdoms prospered as the resins, which were used in religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumes and medicines, moved to destinations such as Gaza and Alexandria.
Routes d'Arabie also sheds precious light on a number of cities and settlements. Tayma, in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, was as a crucial valve for commerce between the Gulf and the Red Sea, the southern peninsula and the Mediterranean. It also provides an early example of sedentary life in the region. Tayma's inhabitants erected walls around their city as early as the third millennium. Meanwhile, the oasis of al 'Ula, just south of Tayma, hosted the kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan. The latter distinguished itself by constructing colossal statues, two of which have been so beautifully restored for Routes d'Arabie that they upstage nearly everything else around them. The exhibition also touches on Gerrha, or rather its myth, as this particular merchant city has never been found, only alluded to by classical authors and searched for by archaeologists, who believe it might have been located on or near Thaj, one of the largest archaeological sites in the region.
Of course, all of this predates the advent of Islam, which gave rise to the area's most defining routes: the pilgrimage roads to Mecca and Medina. Routes d'Arabie follows the Darb Zubayda, which the Abbasids built from Iraq, and other overland and sea routes from Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Even when Islam's early dynasties moved their capitals off the Arabian Peninsula - the Umayyads to Damascus, the Abbasids to Andalusia, the Fatimids to Cairo - the roads back to Islam's most sacred sites continued to forge links and nurture exchanges across an expanding Islamic world.
Then, much later, came the rise and fall of the Hejaz railway: some 1,300 kilometres of track laid down from Damascus to Medina. Built for the purpose of extending the Ottoman Empire's existing railway system from Constantinople all the way to Mecca (thus shoring up loyalty and support in the territories inbetween), construction began at the turn of the 20th century. The station in Medina was inaugurated eight years later. But its tracks never did reach Mecca. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the railway was abandoned. This coincided with the end of Ottoman rule, and the beginning of realpolitik on the peninsula. According to the Routes d'Arabie catalogue, "it became the theatre of the struggle between the Arab independence movement and the Ottomans, the prelude to new regional order and the birth of the Saudi Kingdom".
Only the very last rooms of Routes d'Arabie concern the creation of that kingdom. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, they are also the only rooms that fall flat, feeling more perfunctorily propagandistic than historically illuminating. Certainly, there is no shortage of politics at play behind the scenes of this exhibition, held under the joint patronage of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In fact, it is the latest in a long line of collaborations - cultural, political and financial - between France, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region at large (it also coincides with the development of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the construction of the Louvre's new Islamic galleries, thanks to a substantial donation from Saudi's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal).
More significant in this context, however, is the fact that the current exhibition is actually a reciprocal effort, following Masterpieces from the Louvre's Islamic Arts Collection, an exhibition staged at the National Museum in Riyadh in 2006. Moreover, Routes d'Arabie signals the serious steps being taken by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities to create a network of regional museums, protect its archaeological sites, update its preservation policies and digitise its vast collections, of which Routes d'Arabie offers just a sample.
Anchoring the exhibition for more modern eyes is a sequence of gorgeous black and white photographs by the Brazilian photographer Humberto da Silveira, depicting contemporary views of the archaeological sites - 26 in total, where the objects on display have been found. The show's overall design favours the kind of chiaroscuro lighting that has become fashionable for archaeological exhibitions of late, yet it manages to avoid the feeling of overwhelming darkness, the lighting playing masterfully with the objects on display. In one instance a silver piece in a glass case appears, on first glance, to be a ladle, but is then revealed, thanks to the shadow it casts, to be a delicate, perforated strainer.
The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago once wrote: "To look, see and observe are different ways of using the organ of sight." In Saramago's view, the first two are faulty. One can look without seeing, or see without noticing. "Only by observing can we achieve full vision," he wrote. "Our attention becomes concentrated ? What is seen pleads to be seen once more." Routes d'Arabie is a rare exhibition of ancient artefacts staged in contemporary times - one that begs for full vision, and rewards the effort required to achieve it.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut