Ancient sources describe the legendary Arabian city of Gehrra as unmatched in wealth and importance. Located in the northeastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, the city attained mythical status in the ancient world, but its exact location was unknown until recently. In 1998, archaeologists discovered the first century BC tomb of a young royal girl outside the city of Thaj. Rich with gold, pearls and precious stones, including a Hellenistic gold funerary mask, the find led scholars to propose that Thaj may be none other than the lost city of Gehrra.
Funerary Mask, 1st century CE: In the summer of 1998, a group of Saudi archaeologists stumbled upon a magnificent royal tomb outside Thaj, a city in northeastern Arabia. Datable to the first century CE, it belonged to a young girl, whose body was covered with gold, rubies, and pearls. The funerary objects buried with her were decorated with Hellenistic motifs, which must have been imported.
The use of a gold funerary mask was probably also inspired by Hellenistic practices and further affirms Thaj’s contacts with the Mediterranean world and familiarity with its customs and traditions.
From about 3300 to 1300 BCE, northeastern Arabia served as a vital stop for ships from southeast Asia and Oman to Mesopotamia. The region grew so wealthy that Mesopotamian myths identified it as paradise.
The most important city in the northeast was Gerrha. It was also known as one of the wealthiest centers that rose to prominence during the Hellenistic period (first and second centuries CE). Scholars have identified the site of Thaj, where they have found a royal tomb with precious objects from the Mediterranean world, with the legendary Gerrha.
Strabo described the city as having “fancy tools made out of gold and silver, such as the family gold, right [Qawa’im] triangles, and their drinking glass, let alone their large homes which have their doors, walls, roofs filled with colors, gold, silver, and holy stones
No one is exactly sure where Gerrha was located, because it wasn’t directly located in the sea, but had an oasis. The researcher Abdulkhaliq Al Janbi argued in his book that Gerrha was most likely the ancient city of Hajar, located in modern-day Al Ahsa, Saudi Arabia. Al Janbi’s theory is the most widely accepted one by modern scholars, although there are some difficulties with this argument given that Al Ahsa is 60 km inland and thus less likely to be the starting point for a trader’s route, making the location within the archipelago of islands comprising the modern Kingdom of Bahrain, particularly the main island of Bahrain itself, another possibility
As Gerrha is located in the Arabian Peninsula, there’s no doubt that the city’s inhabitants were Arab. All scholars, except Strabo, who described the inhabitants as “Chaldean exiles from Babylon”, he later retracted his statements when he said “Because of their trade, the Gerrhans became the richest of the Arabs”, agree that the inhabitants were indeed Arab. Also, petroglyphs were found in Greece and were found out to be sent by a man from Gerrha called Taym Al Lat, which is undoubtedly an Arab name.
Few archaeological discoveries in recent years have so radically transformed our understanding of a region as the objects on view in Roads of Arabia. Mysterious stone steles, monumental human statues, haunting gold masks and finely forged bronze figures testify to Arabia’s largely unknown and remarkable history before the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE.
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 grew 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.
As early as 1200 BCE, the camel revolutionized Arabian commerce. Highly valued incense was transported from the Horn of Africa and the southern shores of Arabia to the temples and royal courts of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Caravans of merchants moved slowly across deserts and craggy, mountainous landscapes, stopping at oases for rest. As a network of roads developed, oases became cosmopolitan centers of wealth and artistic production.
One of these major commercial hubs was Qaryat al-Fau, the capital of the Arab Kingdom of Kinda, a resplendent city of markets, multi-story buildings and more than 120 water wells. Artifacts from the site demonstrate the influence of cultures in their imagery, such as drinking cups made of dark blue glass, popular throughout the Roman Empire. Although seemingly isolated at the edge of the daunting desert known as the “Empty Quarter,” the community of Qaryat al-Fau was connected to the cultures of southern Arabia and civilizations far to the north.
Oases, towns, and way stations flourished along the trade routes, while bustling markets offered luxury objects created both locally and imported from afar. With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Mecca (Makkah) became the religious and spiritual focus of both the Arabian Peninsula and the expanding Muslim world. Prior to this period, the “roads” carrying incense led from Arabia to surrounding regions; after the coming of Islam, new “roads” bringing pilgrims from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and beyond converged on Mecca. Instead of the anthropomorphic forms that dominated the pre-Islamic period, the emphasis shifted to the written word, inspired by the revelation of the Koran.
Anthropomorphic Stele, 4th millennium BCE: This haunting anthropomorphic stele is among the earliest known works of art from the Arabian Peninsula and dates back to some six thousand years ago. Found near Ha’il in the north, it was probably associated with religious or burial practices. The figure’s distinctive belted robe and double-bladed sword may have been unique to this region.
Pedestal or altar, 5th-4th century BCE: The so-called al-Hamra cube was discovered in the al-Hamra Temple at Tayma, an important trading city in northwestern Arabia. Its fine decoration confirms the integration of Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs into local religious practices, such as the worship of the local god Salm. The bull with a solar disk between its horns relates to the Egyptian bull deity Apis, while the winged disk was inspired by Mesopotamian and Iranian examples.
Statue of a Man4th-3rd century BCE: Standing tall and erect, this impressive, larger than life-size statue is one of several examples found in the Lihyanite temple of Dedan in northwestern Arabia. The formal pose and well-defined musculature recall Egyptian and Syrian models that have been interpreted according to the local Lihyanite tradition. An inscription on another statue helps identify them as kings of the Lihyanite dynasty.
Bronze Head of a Man, 1st century BCE-2nd century CE: This bronze head was originally part of a life-sized statue. Although partially damaged, the face is visibly treated in a Greco-Roman style, while the thick curls are typical of local workmanship. During the first and second centuries CE, southern Arabia enjoyed strong commercial contacts with the Mediterranean world and the Roman Empire, which is also apparent in the arts and material culture of the period.
Bronze Statuette of Heracles, 1st-3rd century CE: The small exceptional statue of the Greek hero Heracles is identifiable by his lion skin and club. Originally, he would have held a drinking vessel in his right hand, an attribute of Heracles-Bibax or the drinking Heracles. This form of Heracles was associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of banqueting and wine, whose cult was popular in Qaryat al-Faw.
With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Mecca (Makkah) became the religious and spiritual focus of both the Arabian Peninsula and the expanding Muslim world. Prior to this period, the “roads” carrying incense led from Arabia to surrounding regions; after the coming of Islam, new “roads” bringing pilgrims from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and beyond converged on Mecca. Instead of the anthropomorphic forms that dominated the pre-Islamic period, the emphasis shifted to the written word, inspired by the revelation of the Koran.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in 570 CE. At that time, Mecca was a trading center for local goods and the site of the Ka‘ba, an important pagan shrine. Before his death in 632 CE, the Prophet designated Mecca as Islam’s holiest city and the destination of the hajj, a pilgrimage required of all Muslims. In addition to circumambulating the Ka‘ba, pilgrims are to visit several sites in Mecca as part of the hajj: they drink from the Zamzam well, which is said to have miraculously provided water for Hagar and her son Ishmael when they were lost in the desert; they throw stones at three columns to ward off temptations; and they camp at Mount Arafat, believed to be a meeting place of Adam and Eve. For more than 1,400 years, Mecca has served as the religious heart of Islam, bringing together Muslims from all over the world.
In 622 CE the Prophet Muhammad made the most momentous journey in the history of Arabia. He and his followers left Mecca (Makkah) for Medina in a migration known as the hijra. This was a pivotal moment in the development of the Muslim community, and it is little wonder that it marks the launch of the Muslim hijri calendar, for indeed it was the inception of a new era, Year One. The century that followed saw Islam extend its reach from the Straits of Gibraltar to the deserts of the Taklamakan. Islam, in other words, emerged in an effulgent blaze, and what preceded it seems cast in deep shadow.
Incense Burner, AH 1049/1649 CE: Commissioned by the mother of the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40), this exquisite incense burner is one of the many gifts presented to the shrine at Mecca, the spiritual center of Islam. The elegantly designed object also attests to the continued importance of incense in the Islamic world.
Door of the Ka’ba, AH 1045/1635-36 CE: This massive wooden door, covered with silver leaf, was donated to Mecca by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623-40) and formerly stood at the entrance to the interior of the Ka‘ba. Primary sources suggest that the design of such doors changed little over the centuries. A tenth-century poet relates that the door at that time was “covered with inscriptions, circles and arabesques in gilded silver.” The Ottoman door was used until around 1947.
Archaeologists continue to unearth important finds beneath the shifting sands of the desert. Roads of Arabia offers