By Heather Abraham
Teo and I arose early, quickly exited our hotel in the Latin district of Paris and followed the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread to the nearest bakery. Purchasing delectable ham and cheese pastries to consumer later, we briskly walked along the Seine enjoying the crispness of the morning air. Our destination: the Louvre, our mission: the temporary Roads to Arabia exhibit housed in the Napoleon wing of the Louvre.
Twenty-five minutes later we crossed Pont Neuf and entered the Louvre courtyard through an enormous arched gateway. Surrounded by the magnificence of the courtyard and standing just a few feet from the famous Louvre pyramid, Teo & I enjoyed our breakfast while standing in line waiting for the 9AM opening of the museum. The majestic surroundings reminded us of the daunting challenge the museum presents to those attempting to see her treasures. Although this was not our first visit to the Louvre, we were keenly aware that we had only seen a fraction of her treasures and today’s visit would end with our planning another trip in the future.
Entering the museum through the pyramid, we headed to the Napoleon wing and entered the Roads to Arabia exhibit. Marketed as a pre-Islamic exhibition of ancient artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula, the exhibit proved to be both a walk through ancient Arabia and an introduction to early and pre-modern Islamic Art.
Most of the 300 plus artifacts in the exhibit have never been on display to a domestic or international audience and represent a myriad of cultures and civilizations from the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula. It is interesting to note the collection’s debut outside of Saudi Arabia, as representations of the human form are understood as blasphemous according to the strict Wahhabi brand of Islam enforced throughout Saudi Arabia since the rise of the Saud family at the beginning of the 20th century.
Many of the artifacts represent pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula civilizations beginning with the 4th millennia BCE. Moving through the exhibit one is confronted with various civilizations which once thrived throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Each civilization/period is introduced with large photographic representations of Arabia’s diverse landscapes and detailed explanations written in Arabic, French, and English.
The artifacts themselves are arranged in dimly lit cases and displays which are arranged sparingly throughout the darkened rooms of the Napoleon wing. Photographs are strictly prohibited and a multitude of guards are on constant vigil against those attempting to sneak a photo. Clay bowls, figurines, funeral steles, massive stone statues of Lihyanite kings, stunning objects of colorful glass, silver utensils, and intricate gold jewelry represented the talented artisans and cultures of pre-Islamic Arabia.
As I moved through the exhibit, I become aware of moving toward an intended (and delicately constructed) understanding that the true purpose of the Arabian Peninsula was yet to come: the birthplace of Islam. Turning a corner and entering another darkened room, visitors are presented with a large display of Islamic headstones, each inscribed with praises to Allah and or Muhammad in beautiful Arabic script. The inscriptions, moving and beautifully carved into glistening stone, are representative of the evolving Arabic art of calligraphy dating from the 10th to 16th centuries. Moving past the headstones, the largest and perhaps the most compelling Islamic artifact came into view—a magnificent 16th century door that once graced the Ka’ba in Mecca. The door, standing roughly fifteen feet high, was commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640) and placed on the Ka’ba in 1636. Made of wood overlaid in carved silver leaf, the door is an outstanding example of Islamic craftsmanship. The idea that this door had been witness to centuries of Hajj pilgrimage ritual and history was quite thrilling for this Nerd!
The last, and perhaps the most telling, objects in the collection are of the personal belongings of King Abdulaziz (1876-1953), the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The coat and sword of King Abdulaziz are displayed near a larger than life photo of the King sitting in a semi relaxed state; his penetrating gaze, staring directly at the observer, somewhat unsettling and aggressive—a necessary tool for a new and contested ruler.
Most unsettling, for me, was the narrative selected to describe Abdulaziz as a great mediator, natural and peaceful leader, and unifier of the Arabian peoples and the nonsensical description of Wahhabi Islam as the “middle path” or “middle way”—representative of peaceful Islam. The inclusion of this re-writing of Saudi history, clearly defined the exhibition as an attempt by the Saudi government (royal family) to promote Saudi Arabia as a regional leader of the Arab world, the religious center for Muslims the world over, and THE authority of Islam.
It is worth noting that these artifacts are controversial within Saudi Arabia (some religious leaders calling for their destruction) because they represent the pre-Islamic period of “Jahiliya” or ignorance and yet the Saudi government is utilizing these artifacts in an attempt to cultivate a new and improved international persona for the country and the Saud family. It is also worth noting that for many Muslims, Saudi Wahhabism is understood as a relatively recent and radical branch of Islam which has, due to the immense wealth of the oil rich Saudi’s, contributed to the spread of a radical (Saudi) brand of Islam throughout the Islamic world and has threatened established Islamic traditions.
Although deeply disappointed at the blatant propaganda embedded in the exhibition, I believe that the historical artifacts, up to but not including the modern Saud family, hold immense historical value and are well worth seeing. The Roads to Arabia artifacts will next be on display in Spain and will be making the trip across the Atlantic to Washington, D.C. sometime early next year.