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Saudi King a No Show as Treasures Glitter in Louvre Exhibition

Lihyanite Statue
A statue from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Lihyan in the first millennium B.C. The work is on loan from the Royal University, Saudi Arabia, to the "Arabian Roads" exhibition, on view at the Louvre Museum through Sept. 27. Photographer: Thierry Ollivier/Musee du Louvre via Bloomberg

Paris is abuzz with rumors about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and why he didn’t show up, as planned, at the opening of the Louvre’s first show devoted to his country.

Was he furious at an article in the newspaper “Le Figaro” quoting him on June 29 -- falsely, say the Saudis -- as having said to Herve Morin, the French minister of defense, that two countries, Iran and Israel, didn’t deserve to exist?

Or was the 85-year-old monarch just tired after the G20 summit in Toronto and his subsequent trip to Washington?

Whatever the reason, his absence shouldn’t discourage you from visiting “Routes d’Arabie: Archeologie et Histoire du Royaume d’Arabie Saoudite.” It’s a show full of surprises.

Compared with other Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia is little known for its archaeological sites. The strictly religious government has been in no hurry to direct attention to the pre-Islamic period of “Jahiliya,” or ignorance.

Most of the 300 items have never left the country before. In return, the Louvre has cleaned and restored many pieces.

The oldest -- steles representing humans or gods -- are from the fourth millennium B.C. They are primitive, yet not without expression.

From there, you proceed to the first millennium B.C. and the mysterious kingdom of Lihyan in the northwestern corner of the peninsula with its capital Dedan, today’s Al-Ula. The muscular giants on display may remind you of Egyptian statues.

Dedan was an important caravansary on the Incense Road, the network of ancient trading routes that linked Persia and India with the Mediterranean world. The road ended in Gaza.

Young Princess

Another caravansary was the lost city of Gerrha in the east of the peninsula. In 1998, a burial mound of a young princess was discovered in that region; its contents -- a golden mask, golden gloves and various pieces of jewelry --show Greek influence.

The Lihyanites were driven out by the Nabateans whose capital Petra (in today’s Jordan) is one of the wonders of the world. Few have heard of their second city Hejra (Mada’in Salih) in Saudi Arabia boasting the same sensational funerary architecture carved into the cliffs.

In 106 A.D., Roman forces entered Petra, and the Nabatean kingdom ceased to exist. Several items in the show have Latin inscriptions.

The second part covers Saudi Arabia’s Islamic past. Much of what you find here -- pottery, incense burners, manuscripts of the Koran -- you may have seen in other Muslim countries.

Mohammed’s Wives

The exceptions are the tombstones from Jannat al Maala, a cemetery near Mecca, where one of Mohammed’s 11 (or 13) wives and other VIPs are buried. They are believed to be the first to rise with the Prophet on the Day of Judgment.

Another highlight is a silver-plated door to the Kaaba, the huge cubic stone in the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque that attracts millions of pilgrims every year. The door, covered with calligraphy and vegetal ornaments, was a gift from Sultan Murad IV in 1636; it was replaced in the 1930s.

The show ends with a map of the Hejaz railroad, dear to admirers of Lawrence of Arabia, and insignia of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia and the father of the present ruler.

The exhibition, which is supported by Total SA, runs through Sept. 27. Information: or +33-1-4020-5317.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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