WASHINGTON -- When anyone with even minimal curiosity peruses the maps of the Middle East, one of the first things to assault his senses is the immense deserts that begin and seemingly never end from Tunisia and Egypt to nearly Yemen and Oman. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ALL desert, including the magnificent but deadly sand hills blown into unimaginable forms in the wasteland that's appropriately called the "Empty Quarter."
A legendary handful of men -- adventurers like the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger -- have actually walked the Empty Quarter and come out alive at the pleasant Persian Gulf monarchies. It is not advised. One, the famous British military genius and writer T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," led the tribes there during World War I across the great deserts to take Aquaba from the Turks, attacking from the rear, which was considered impossible. This is definitely not advised.
So when you look at maps of the Middle East, you will find little of note marked on the Saudi map. Only Mecca and Medina, in the far west of the Saudi peninsula, along with the big commercial city of Jeddah, are properly marked. But Mecca and Medina, of course, are holy cities of Islam and are closed to non-Muslims. When you drive from Jeddah to the mountains, there is one place where the highway divides into two distinct roads; the one you want is called the "Christian Bypass." Otherwise, south of the capital of Riyadh, farther to the east, and the big oil industry city of Dhahran in the far east along the Persian Gulf, virtually nothing appears on the map. Only sand, sand, sand. And there are no great cities built upon sand.
I remember once interviewing the Saudi "prince of the northern region," who told me sadly that he would give up all the Saudis' great oil wealth for a river that would flow through the north.
But Saudi history has not always been written in sand. An exhibition that recently closed at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution here causes us -- indeed, forces us -- to think of the Saudi theater of human life not only as a history of great sandstorms in the Empty Quarter or of powerful sheikhs ruling from desert tents, but of a verdant land with green trees and red flowers, with sophisticated cities sprinkled along trade routes paralleling the Red Sea and even the Persian Gulf. A mere 8,000 years ago -- only 6,000 years before the birth of Christ and in tandem with the beginnings of many of the magnificent cities such as Baghdad, Ur and Nineveh in modern Iraq -- today's sand-stricken Arabia was a luscious garden, as parts of Yemen and Oman are still.
Serious archaeological excavation in the Arabian continent really began only in 1970, extremely late in the race for archaeological riches, which had already given the world the unbelievable finds and knowledge of Ephesus, Luxor, Great Zimbabwe, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the wonders of Greece and Rome. It seemed no one could believe that similar treasures lay under such implacable walls and floors of sand, despite the fact that some of the cities we now know existed had been mentioned in the great early historians' notes.
In this unbelievable exhibition, "Roads of Arabia," which is sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government and a number of large companies working there, such as ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, the viewer can see large gold faces, magnificent paintings, huge statues approaching the Greek style, every sort of small jewelry and household utensil, steles with intricate carvings. History, it turns out, has been very sparing with the Arabian desert, holding back its true nature and heritage until this era for reasons we little understand.
The until-now largely unknown cities in that lush world beneath today's sands had magnificent mausoleums built into the cliffs (Petra in Jordan in the far north is one of these). In some places, the bases of the towns and cities have been uncovered, as well as the original trade roads. The cities are believed to have been beautiful and rich, the foremost trade product being the frankincense and myrrh produced in the nearby Sultanate of Oman.
"Few archaeological discoveries in recent years have so radically transformed the understanding of a region as have the objects on view in 'Roads of Arabia,'" reads the exhibition booklet. "A principal reason for the prominence of the Arabian Peninsula in antiquity was its near monopoly on the cultivation and trade of incense -- in particular, frankincense and myrrh -- that was available only in its southern regions. The lucrative trade encouraged the creation of a complex network of roads that supplied the highly prized commodity to the temples and courts of the ancient Near East -- Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Iran -- and the Greco-Roman world. Oases, towns and way stations flourished along the trade routes, while bustling markets offered luxury objects that were both created locally and imported from afar."
"Roads of Arabia" will be traveling to Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston over the next two years. Do see it! Not for the things that are there, but because of the things that are no longer there.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)