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"Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade" Opens June 25 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: June 25–September 10, 2005
Sponsors: "Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade" is generously supported by Mrs. Richard Helms, Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Hunt Consolidated, Inc., Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Yemenia Airlines, U.S. Embassy in Sanaa (Yemen), Mr. Hossein Afshar, Canadian Nexen Petroleum Yemen, International Bank of Yemen, al-Mithaq Press, Hayel Said Anam Group, Thabet Investments Company S.Y.C., and the Universal Group of Companies of Yemen.

April 27, 2005

The extraordinary art of ancient Yemen will take center stage at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery this summer, with the June 25 opening of "Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade." Located on the Gulf of Aden at the south of the Arabian Peninsula and bordering the Arabian and Red Seas, this region once played a central role in an ancient "global economy" that extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

During a 1400-year period between the eighth century B.C.E. and the sixth century C.E., the southern Arabian kingdoms of Saba (biblical Sheba), Qataban, and Himyar were home to sophisticated civilizations that flourished through their control of the trade in frankincense and myrrh. Now best-known as the Gifts of the Magi, these valuable resins were harvested from bushes native to the region and were essential ingredients for court and temple ceremonies and in the spice markets and perfume industries of the Near East and Mediterranean worlds.

"Caravan Kingdoms" for the first time in North America brings together 129 archaeological objects from museums in the state of Yemen, The American Foundation for the Study of Man, The British Museum, and Dumbarton Oaks to tell the story of these little-known, wealthy caravan kingdoms, examining the monumental structures, distinctive stone funerary sculpture, elaborately carved inscriptions, and sophisticated metalwork that have been unearthed there since the mid-20th century. The exhibition continues through September 10.

Dominated by the great interior desert known as the Ramlat as-Sabatyn, Yemen's four major valleys were occupied during this period by sophisticated states, which constructed complex irrigation systems and built imposing palaces and temples. These kingdoms competed for control over the lucrative overland caravan and later maritime trade routes to the Mediterranean coast and the western shores of the Persian Gulf.

The kingdom of Saba, with its great capital at Marib, dominated a wide area of southern Arabia from the early seventh century B.C.E. to the fourth century B.C.E., when it was conquered by Qataban, its eastern neighbor, which continued to rule until the first century C.E. Archaeological evidence shows that Saba was organized around a common language (Sabaean), a shared cult of the god Almaqah, and a pantheon of lesser deities and centralized political institutions.

Over 10,000 South Arabian inscriptions survive, including several on view. These include personal names on ceramic vessels, cult and votive objects, and monumental inscriptions found on buildings, which take the form of decrees, dedications, property claims and commemorative declarations, giving insight into the area's religious, political and social structures. One example on view, dated to the eighth century B.C.E. Sirwah, commemorates the building of a palace or enclosure wall by a ruler of the kingdom of Saba and is one of the oldest examples of writing in Sabaean, a Semitic language related to Arabic and Ethiopian.

Multiple burials and cave tombs often contained miniature offerings; examples included in the exhibition are tiny vessels, incense burners, and altars. Incense was used in local rituals as evidenced by the large variety of incense burners on view. Bulls and ibex frequently appeared in temple decoration as capitals, on friezes and gutter spouts, examples of which are on display.

Sabaean architects constructed the great temple of Awam—the earliest and largest on the Arabian Peninsula—near Marib. More than 400 fragments of statues have been found at the site, including a remarkably well-preserved, almost three-foot-tall bronze figure of a man draped in a skirt and lion skin. Awam's cemetery was used from the ninth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. and contained more than 20,000 burials, which were often placed in multistoried tombs. Stone sculptures and reliefs on view bear inscriptions naming the deceased and represent the highly diverse and original representations of human features found among these funerary monuments.

A hallmark of Yemen's ancient cultural traditions is the creative use of a translucent, alabaster-like stone to carve funerary monuments and decorate temples and palaces. Statues of three generations of Awsan kings on view—each individualized by variations in dress, hairstyle, jewelry, and footwear—depict the typical funerary convention of a standing figure with arms extended in a gesture of offering.

During the first century B.C.E., maritime trade superseded caravan routes, and the Kingdom of Himyar in Yemen's southern highlands became dominant. During the fifth and early sixth centuries, the Himyarite kings ruled the entire southern Arabian Peninsula. Their sea trade introduced artistic styles, subjects and craft traditions from the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Roman dominance of the maritime trade along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean also brought Mediterranean styles of architectural decoration to the routes' borders; examples on view are a mid-third-century pillar capital decorated with a griffin in front of an urn, excavated from the royal palace at Shabwa, and a cornice ornamented with fruited grapevine patterns.

Bronze statues, like the large bronze rearing horse with Himyaritic inscriptions on view, also reflect Greco-Roman influence. A pair of bronze lion riders found in a private house in Tamna, capital of Qataban, though inscribed in South Arabian, further demonstrate the international taste of the wealthy classes. Inscriptions on a fragment of one over-life-sized royal statue indicate that a foreign artisan collaborated with a local worker in its production. A bull's head, bust of Athena and a helmet fashioned as a male head with features of a Hellenistic ruler—all excavated in 1996 at Jabal al-Lawdh in southwest Yemen's high plateau—also show the presence of Hellenistic imports and the influence of foreign themes on domestically produced objects. Glass drinking vessels and perfume containers and gold, silver, and bronze jewelry, belt ornaments, and buttons on view also were imported from or imitated the styles found in the Roman and Iranian worlds.

A 204-page soft cover catalog edited by Ann C. Gunter and published by the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery accompanies the exhibition. The catalog is made possible by the Social Fund for Development of Yemen.

This exhibition is organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Yemen, and with the American Foundation for the Study of Man, Falls Church, Virginia.

"Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade" is generously supported by Mrs. Richard Helms, Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Hunt Consolidated, Inc., Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Yemenia Airlines, U.S. Embassy in Sanaa (Yemen), Mr. Hossein Afshar, Canadian Nexen Petroleum Yemen, International Bank of Yemen, al-Mithaq Press, Hayel Said Anam Group, Thabet Investments Company S.Y.C., and the Universal Group of Companies of Yemen.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily, except Wednesdays and public holidays and are subject to docent availability. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the exhibitions section of the galleries' website.

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