Once there was a land with cities that thrived on the incense trade, cities with names like Tayma, Qaryat al-Faw (the City of Paradise), Thaj, Dedan, and many more cities of the Incense Roads of Arabia. They had a near monopoly on frankincense and myrrh, so important to worship in the Mediterranean world, in Persia, in Mesopotamia, and in Egypt. The trees grew (and still do) in the southern deserts, their resins harvested from the bark and transported in caravans. Great wealth was generated. Agatharchides writing in the 2nd century BCE reported, “From their trafficking both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaeans have become the richest of all; and they have a vast equipment of both gold and silver articles, and very costly houses; for doors and walls and ceilings are variegated with ivory and gold and silver set with precious homes.”
Their homes and temples were also set with beautiful sculptures and paintings. Some can be seen at the fascinating exhibition Roads of Arabia at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (through Jan. 18, 2015). What surprised me was to see this rich figurative art tradition, a lot of it obviously sacred in a land that has long been under the interdict of Islam’s forbidding of representation of the human form. It’s also intriguing to see how interwoven with the neighboring regions of classical civilization polytheistic Arabia was. Besides many indigenous gods mentioned in inscriptions, there are sculptures of Herakles Bibax (the Drinker associated with Dionysos) and other classical ones.
Recent archaeology is bringing to light a lot more knowledge. One is of the Red City, Qaryat-al Faw in the southwest, “at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the great desert that occupies so much of southern Arabia. At Qaryat al-Faw, Saudi archaeologists made one of their most spectacular discoveries, uncovering a city that contained material typical of southern Arabia alongside Hellenistic figurative sculpture from Syria and Egypt” (Asian Art). This city has yielded much banqueting equipment, unsurprisingly the worship of Dionysos was popular. There are haunting anthropomorphic stele form extremely ancient dates of 4th and 5th millennia BCE; I think these are likely ancestral figures. There is so so much more offering tantalizing glimpses into barely known ancient polytheistic cultures. Call me an Orientalist if you will, but thinking of these long vanished cities evoke images from a 30’s sword and sorcery novel for me.
If you are in the region, the exhibition is highly worth visiting. www.roadsofarabia.com