Museum visitors travel the Roads of Arabia

Carnegie Museum of Natural History's newest exhibit explores elusive history of Saudi Arabia

Rachel Cohen Aug 25, 2013

Walking into the Roads of Arabia exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is like walking into a graveyard: There’s a sudden, silencing chill that momentarily takes you off guard. Standing at the entrance are three solitary stone figurines, their human faces inscrutable, the light casting their long, eerie shadows across the floor.

As the description on a far wall explains, these 6,000-year-old anthropomorphic steles were most likely used for religious or burial purposes. Striking as they are, the steles comprise only a small part of the rich array of rare artifacts used to illustrate the fascinating and elusive history of Saudi Arabia.

As it turns out, Roads of Arabia is an apt title for the exhibit: Saudi Arabia’s history is mapped out in roads, which first transported incense for trade and later carried pilgrims journeying to Mecca. Viewers get to brush up on their Arabian history (or start from scratch) with an introductory video — the most useful, yet most easily overlooked, part of the exhibit. Tucked away in a dark, hidden room, the video vividly and poetically explains the human element behind the artifacts and connects the dots between objects and dates that on their own can lose their context.

Though every object in the exhibit is stunning in its own right, a few stand out for their sheer “wow” factor. In a far room of the exhibit stand three larger-than-life Lihyanite statues with human faces and bodies degraded by the elements, somewhat reminiscent of classic Egyptian sphinxes. Aside from their size, there’s something sublime about being in such close proximity to ancient objects.

Despite the majesty of the statues, the most unquestionably stunning pieces are the tombstones from the al-Ma’la cemetery in Mecca. The stones are arranged in rows that emulate a graveyard, creating an air of hushed solemnity as viewers walk from one stone to the other, reading the intricate inscriptions on the markers.

At the end of this short detour, viewers find themselves standing before a formidable set of faded purple, silver-gilded double doors, flanked by a giant pair of golden candlesticks. These massive doors once guarded the entrance to the Ka’ba — Arabic for “the cube” — one of the most sacred sites in Islam, located in the heart of Mecca.

Incredible as they are, these artifacts wouldn’t be half as impressive without the wealth of information the exhibit provides. Between informational videos and labels, Roads of Arabia does an excellent job of supplementing the objects on display with rich, meaningful context. Viewers quickly learn that this is not your typical exhibit of prehistoric tools and stone carvings, but rather an exhibit of objects that became instrumental in reshaping archaeologists’ understanding of the Arab region.

In this way, Roads of Arabia truly takes the road motif to heart. From beginning to end, viewers sense they are on a journey of sorts; after all, in an exhibit covering a region that saw so much travel across history, it makes sense for viewers to undergo experiences similar to those the exhibit explores — at least on a symbolic level. Though not strictly chronological, Roads of Arabia moves fluidly through history, enabling viewers to transport across time in an enclosed physical space. Visitors to Roads of Arabia may not be able to help but feel as if they are retracing the footsteps of long-dead Arabians as they walk through the exhibit.