The Arabian Peninsula is often overlooked in the recounting of the antiquity of the Middle East. It lingers in the shade of its more illustrious neighbours. While ancient Mesopotamia to the north and Egypt to the west are both known for their long and complex histories of cultural achievement, Arabia has a timeless quality in the imagination of many outsiders. It appears as a kind of wilderness, a place where human activity matches the temperament of nature, from the eternal movements of Bedouin nomads to the sudden eruption of the Arab conquests at the advent of Islam. Elemental imagery - dunes, sandstorms, the nodding humps of camels - screens the history of the region. Mesopotamia was once dotted with ziggurats and Egypt with pyramids. The coastal kingdoms of Yemen grew powerful and sophisticated from the trade of the Indian Ocean. By contrast, Arabia of the historical imagination seems an impermeable desert; people may have passed through, but their footprints disappeared into the wind.
Dig deeper and the region has much more to offer the historical record. In the last 40 years, European and Saudi archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of tantalising finds that propose an altogether different image of ancient Arabia. Pottery, statues, steles, jewellery, utensils and other objects excavated across the peninsula suggest a sophisticated world of bustling commerce and culture. Oasis cities straddled a web of trade routes that brought people, goods and ideas from across the ancient world to Arabia.
Much of the impetus behind these archaeological efforts has come from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is keen to populate the rather sparse landscape of its pre-Islamic history. With the kingdom's largesse and blessings (as well as those of oil companies Exxon and Aramco), a collection of these objects arrived for the first time in North America as part of the Roads of Arabia exhibition at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition reaches as far back as 9,000 years in revealing the little-known cultural past of the peninsula.
Just as oil attracts foreigners to Saudi Arabia today, the incense trade drew the peninsula into a lucrative relationship with the rest of the world, particularly in the first millennium BC. Made from the resin of trees in the arid, stony southern reaches of the region, incense (like frankincense and myrrh) travelled north through the peninsula to the urban centres of Mesopotamia and Iran in the east, to Egypt in the west, and even further afield, via the ports of the Levantine and Gulf coasts, to Europe and India. These "incense roads" - overland trade routes - encouraged the growth of cities and political entities, many of which will be unfamiliar to even those knowledgeable of the ancient past of the Middle East. Thanks in large part to the testimony of objects like those on display in Roads of Arabia, scholars are reconstructing their understanding of the history of the desert region. Further excavations promise to reveal more.
Unsurprisingly, numerous incense burners crowd the cases of the exhibition. Early examples were often carved from stone, engraved with ritual images, invocations of a deity, or simply the names of their owners. A two millennia-old limestone burner found at the southern site of Qaryat Al-Faw boasts a carving of a serpent running up one side of the bowl, from where smoke would have snaked upwards. Incense fuelled the economy of ancient Arabia, but it also bookended human life, the sacred and the profane. Priests burned aromatics ceremonially to honour the mixed pantheon of pre-Islamic Arabia. At the same time, a more earthly and urgent use drove demand for incense. In crowded towns and settlements, it helped mask the stench of sewage.
The mundane has only so much charm. As is often the case with such exhibitions, you find yourself peering at innumerable pots and bowls and cups, clay fragments and shards of stone, the stuff of long-gone kitchens and workshops. It can be amusing to imagine a merchant in an oasis town sipping from one of these vessels or a matriarch leaving an offering to a household god in an earthenware dish. No doubt these objects have tremendous value for historians in grasping the styles and cultural diversity of ancient Arabia. But the imaginative experience far outstrips the aesthetic. In comparison to the equivalent ephemera of daily life from neighbouring regions, many of these examples of Arabian pottery are rather dull and unprepossessing.
There are exceptions, of course, such as a striking 5,000-year-old object from Tarut Island on the Gulf coast, not far from Bahrain. The conical chlorite vessel is formed of two entwined snakes that taper to the upper rim. They stare at each other with mouths agape, like laughing lovers in a close embrace.
More compelling still are the items that reveal the breadth and activity of the ancient Arabian world. A tiny lapis lazuli statue of similar age (and also found in north-east Arabia) depicts a man wrapped in the robes and cowl of a devotee. The stone most likely came from Afghanistan, illuminating by its presence the extent of connections to the peninsula.
Arabia was not simply bound to far away places by material links. The Al-Hamra cube, a pedestal from a temple in Tayma in north-western Arabia, shows the great mingling of cultures that occurred along the incense roads. Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs coincide with imagery referring to the local Arabian deity Salm. Greco-Roman influences abound in other finds, from steles excavated in Thaj in the north-east to a 2,000-year-old bronze statue of Heracles - a club over one shoulder, the pelt of a lion flung across his arm - discovered in the southern site of Qaryat Al-Faw. Another seemingly Greek-influenced object in the collection once served as a leg of a bed. It was a small statue designed in the shape of a woman, modestly clutching the hems of her garment.
Artists and sculptors of pre-Islamic Arabia were committed to producing representations of the human form. A number of striking examples feature prominently in the collection. These include the "colossuses" of Dedan, towering sculptures from the north-west of the peninsula, made around 2,000 years ago. They are no longer intact as they presumably once were, but exist now as a series of headless torsos and correspondingly disembodied heads. There is something rather eerie in staring at one of these glowering giant heads - the flat terrain of its face cratered by two shadow-filled eyes - and wondering if it once belonged to that muscular torso in the next room.
More powerful still are the 6,000-year-old steles that greet visitors at the front of exhibition. These haunting human figures of mysterious purpose were excavated in different parts of the peninsula. They were fashioned by artists who overcame the primitive means available to conjure the most remarkable faces, at once abstract and yet full of expression. The star of these three steles has an open-lipped and almost pained look on its tilted face, stick-like arms clasped over its stomach as if it had a bellyache. It is uncanny to gaze at something so far removed in every way from our present and still experience a moment of recognition.
The steles would have been made long before the incense roads arose in prominence, in a time of stone tools and arrowheads, not caravans of frankincense and myrrh. But if many of the items in Roads of Arabia don't have an obvious relationship to the ferment created by the incense trade, what are they doing there?
One can't help but wonder whether all these objects truly belong together. While the exhibition insists upon a certain narrative unity, the diverse provenance of these objects pulls away from that cohesion. The collection really stems from various periods and three distinct zones of pre-Islamic Arabia: the north-west around the ancient city of Tayma, the north-east near the Gulf coast, and the south, principally around the site of Qaryat Al-Faw. An alphabet soup of peoples parade across these places: the Lihyanites, the Minaeans, the Nabataeans, the Gerrhites and so on. Their relationships to each other, if they had much interaction at all, remain unexplained and largely undiscussed.
While incense may have been important to all these peoples, they are united in this exhibition purely by an accident of modern geography. The physical remains of their cultures happen to all be found in Saudi Arabia. The curators try to turn this accident into destiny. The latter section of the exhibit departs completely from the bulk of Roads of Arabia, taking the visitor to a time after the advent of Islam when the peninsula's incense roads had long disappeared, to be replaced by routes of pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In this way, Arabia appears as an eternally cosmopolitan place, attracting the attention of the world both in its millennial pre-Islamic epochs and its more recent Islamic past.
The hopeful argument of the exhibition is bluntly clear, and becomes increasingly so the closer you get to the end. It draws an unswerving line from the inscrutable steles and looming heads of distant pre-history to the present, claiming all these fragments of other worlds as its own.
Roads of Arabia concludes with a strange coda, a room dedicated to the Saudi royal family and the founding of their kingdom. Flags, documents and other effects of the nascent kingdom line the displays. These trappings of the modern state include the vestments of its first monarch, Abdulaziz ibn Saud: his sword, a maroon cotton robe, a glove and a falcon stand.
This is a peculiar way to end the exhibition. It transforms the emphasis from new revelations about the antiquity of Arabia to a rather over-determined and straining vision of the pre-history of the Saudi state. But nation-states do not have pre-histories; they only propose imagined narratives of the past to burnish themselves in the present.
Such a telegraphed rationale only does a disservice to the wealth of compelling objects in the collection. The charm of visiting a museum and inspecting arcane artefacts lies not in being told their meaning.
Rather, it stems from being afforded the freedom to find their possible meanings, to draw imaginative connections and parallels.
Kanishk Tharoor is a fellow in the creative writing programme at New York University.