Roads of Arabia

by Gregor Nazarian

The Center’s educational outreach program partnered with the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art for a unique teacher workshop on January 29. CCAS Educational Outreach Director Zeina Azzam designed the program in collaboration with the galleries, where the exhibition, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is currently on display through February 24. The exhibition featured statues, tombstones, and decorative objects from the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabian Peninsula, and was the centerpiece of the workshop.

Freer and Sackler docents led the 65 attendees on group tours of the exhibition, after which they were free to browse the collection on their own. Teachers then gathered in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium for presentations on the educational value of the exhibition. Theresa Esterlund, Manager of Interpretive Programming of the Freer/Sackler Office of Education, began with introductory remarks, followed by a welcome from Ms. Azzam.

TeMassumeh Farhad Lecturesachers then heard from Dr. Massumeh Farhad, Chief Curator and Curator of Islamic Art at the Sackler and Freer Galleries. As the curator of Roads of Arabia, Dr. Farhad explained the genesis of the project and guided the audience through several aspects of the exhibition. Offering her personal reflections on travel to Saudi Arabia in preparing for Roads of Arabia, she remarked on the surprising diversity of the landscape and the characteristics of artifacts recently found across the peninsula. Dr. Farhad then traced the influence of Hellenistic, Mesopotamian, and other civilizations on these artifacts and the resulting hybrid forms reflecting a rich pre-Islamic tradition. The combination of recognizable styles with local traditions resulted from trade and economic connections between the peninsula and surrounding regions.

Joan Brodsky Schur, an independent education consultant and curriculum developer, then suggested ways teachers might use the exhibition to develop lessons. She offered two lesson plans of her own design, examining the natural features of the area and using the incense trade to understand the Arabian Peninsula’s economic and social relations with other regions. Schur also reflected on the use of roads, including the experience of travel across the desert and the peninsula’s trade and pilgrimage routes. Along with the rich artifacts from Roads of Arabia, she encouraged teachers to use maps in order to illuminate the peninsula’s often overlooked integration into international trade networks like the Silk Road. The geography of the Arabian Peninsula also suggests many interesting areas of study, including adaptation to the desert climate, the importance of camels, and the development of caravan routes by land and sea. All of the teachers received copies of these lesson plans along with additional educational resources from CCAS and the Freer/Sackler’s Office of Education.

Moroccan-inspired meal After the presentations, attendees moved up to the South Corridor of the Freer for a Moroccan-inspired dinner generously financed by Aramco Services Company. Teachers also received a complimentary bag with materials from the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, along with a sample of frankincense to take to their classrooms.

Gregor Nazarian is a second-year student in the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program at Georgetown University.