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'Roads Of Arabia' Exhibition At The Nelson Reveals Layered Past

Standing near the entrance of the new exhibition, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, called the more than 200 recently discovered artifacts a "revelation for humanity."

Two roads are explored: the incense trade routes, caravans transporting frankincense and myrrh from Arabia to Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman world, as well as the network of roads for travelers on religious pilgrimages to Mecca.

Excavated from more than 10 archaeological sites along these roads, the works span more than 6,000 years from the neolithic period to early in the 20th century, and shine a light on a previously unknown cultural history from the Arabian Peninsula — both before and after the rise of Islam.

"So what we see here is how sophisticated, what a rich culture, what a depth of appreciation there was and how the peninsula was always a crossing path," said Zugazagoitia.

A fledgling archaeology

The first archaeological explorations in the Arabian Peninsula started in the early 1970s. And the unearthed artifacts — from prehistoric tools to gold jewelry to giant statues — didn't travel until 2010, when Roads of Arabia launched its first tour at the Louvre in Paris.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Ali al-Ghabban stands near an oasis, a resting stop for visitors to the Nelson-Atkins.

Ali al-Ghabban, vice President of the Saudi tourism commission, has been described by Prince Sultan bin Salman as "our Indiana Jones." He was part of a team that discovered antiquities from the first century BCE.

During a tour of the exhibition, al-Ghabban said there are now more than 50 Saudi scholars trained in the discipline, and work continues, in coordination with other countries, to uncover more artifacts each day.

"In Saudi Arabia, we have more than 30 teams ... in excavation and surveying," he said. "We are like Egypt in the 19th century."

'Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,' April 25 – July 6, 2014, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1278. The North American tour of the exhibition is organized by Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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