On 2 December 2020, the exhibition “Oman: the Land of Frankincense” opens in the Winter Palace, telling about various stages in the history and culture of Oman.
It presents finds from significant archaeological excavations carried out in the Sultanate of Oman over the past 50 years – archaeological treasures from the 3rd–1st millennia BC. The exhibition includes metal artefacts, very ancient stone mijmars (incense-burners), an Indus seal bearing an inscription and an astonishing stone countenance from a temple of Sin, the god of the moon.
The exhibition has been organized by the State Hermitage and the National Museum of Oman, with which the Hermitage enjoys a close partnership. Since 2014, Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky has been a member of the board of trustees of the museum in Muscat. Days of Oman in the Hermitage and Hermitage Days in Oman, collaboration between restorers and researchers have evolved into joint restoration projects and the long-term exchange of exhibits. The Hermitage has become the first international venue for the Corner of Oman project, under which the exhibition “Oman: the Land of Frankincense” will run for over a year. A reciprocal year-long exhibition devoted to Islam in Russia is going off to Muscat and will be presented in the National Museum of Oman as the first “Corner of the State Hermitage” in the Middle East. It is important to stress that this initiative was proposed by the chairman of the board of trustees of the National Museum of Oman, the present ruler of the Sultanate, His Highness Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, when he held the position of Minister of Culture. Both exhibitions will further an exchange of knowledge and inter-cultural dialogue between Oman and Russia.
The Sultanate of Oman is situated in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula and has land borders with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In ancient times, the Arabian Gulf region played an important role as a centre for the spread and propagation of cultural processes. In this area, the interests of the Mesopotamian and Indus civilizations intersected and encounters with them led to the local culture producing an amazing fusion.
The exhibition “Oman: the Land of Frankincense” is made up of four thematic sections. One of them is devoted to Magan, the oldest known civilization on the territory of Oman. The second part tells about the legendary Land of Frankincense to which four UNESCO World Heritage sites belong. The third and fourth sections are connected with the Iron Age and demonstrate the snake cults that existed in Arabia before the transition to monotheism. The third section also devotes attention to the history of the migration of the Al-Azd tribes from Yemen into the internal regions of Oman and the subsequent formation in Oman of an Arab identity in the form that it is known today. In the fourth section, visitors are introduced to outstanding archaeological finds from the Mudhar site that are unparalleled on the territory of Arabia, indeed throughout the Middle East.
The exhibition is concentrated around the theme of frankincense (olibanum in Latin; al-lubān in Arabic) – Oman’s gift to the world, the trade in which began back in the era of the Magan civilization. The earliest mentions of Magan, in Sumerian cuneiform texts dating from 2300 BC, refer to it as a region from which copper and diorite were brought to Mesopotamia. It was known for shipbuilding and the maritime trade that connected the territory of Oman with the Indus Valley civilization, Mesopotamia and Iran.
A special place on the archaeological map of Oman is taken by the bay of Ras-al-Jinz. Excavations there in the 1980s uncovered one of the region’s largest Late Bronze Age settlements. The exhibition includes two items found there. The first is a seal or stamp carved from soapstone that dates from roughly 2300–2000 BC. The second artefact is the earliest known incense-burner or mijmar, to use the local term. When it was flourishing (in 2600–2000 BC), the Ras-al-Jinz settlement functioned as a seaport and lived off trade and crafts connected with the sea. Ras-al-Jinz is the source of the majority of glyptic items found in the Sultanate of Oman: carved seals from Mesopotamia, Dilmun and the Indus Valley. One of the Indus civilization seals appears in the exhibition.
The display includes unique metal quivers and bows, the earliest ever found by archaeologists on the territory of Arabia and the Middle East. The hoard that included them was named after the settlement of Al-Mudhar where it was found. The settlement of Mudhar East (Adam province, Ad Dakhiliyah governate), situated on the edge of the desert, between the lands of settled and nomadic tribes, has an archaeological complex with three main parts associated with rituals, sacrifices and gatherings. Within it, more than 4,000 copper and bronze arrowheads were unearthed, as well as 40 miniature statues of snakes, reduced-size models of weapons and full-sized weapons. All the objects, the majority of which were unfinished, date from the Iron Age, between 900 and 600 BC. Scholars theorize that they may have been offerings to a god of war or else valuables intended perhaps for ceremonial exchanges of gifts.
The arrival of the Iron Age on the Oman peninsula is dated to 1300 BC. However, the earliest iron artefacts that archaeologists have found on the territory of the sultanate occur only in layers from the Seleucid period. Quite the opposite, the production of copper reached its peak late in the 1st millennium BC. The exhibition features some unique copper and bronze items for the Iron Age, the latest of which dates from around the turn of the 1st millennium AD. They are all a continuation of the ancient tradition of copper production that goes back at least 3000 years.
In the Iron Age, the civilization of the Land of Frankincense came into being in the south of Oman, while in the north the Al-Azd tribes who had arrived from Yemen established settlements, which marked the formation of an Arab identity in Oman. Local legends say that Malik bin Fahm, chieftain of the Azd tribe, moved to Oman from the area of Yemen and was buried at Salut. In the Salut valley, archaeologists have excavated a magnificent highland fortress located above the ruins of a major Bronze Age burial dating from 2500–1900 BC and also an adjoining Iron Age site from 1200–300 BC. This important site is represented in the exhibition by the spout of a copper vessel made in the shape of a hybrid creature – half-man, half-beast, and also a copper sieve with a handle in the shape of an animal’s head.
In the 4th century BC, the fortified seaport of Sumhuram, considered the most important pre-Islamic settlement in the Dhofar region, was built in southern Oman. The port of Sumhuram provided Omani traders with access to the Indian Ocean coast and from there their ships sailed to Hadramawt in present-day Yemen, India and the Eastern Mediterranean. The port was at its most active between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD. The most valuable commodity in the Dhofar region was undoubtedly incense. Not surprisingly, in the 1st century AD Eleazus or Iliazz Yalit I, ruler of Hadramawt, overhauled the port of Sumhuram in order to exert control over the lucrative trade in Dhofar incense. Three important items from Sumhuram are on display: an ancient incense burner and two votive objects with inscriptions made in Musnad, the ancient South Arabian script. The inscriptions mention dedications and offerings made to the moon god Sin in his temple at Sumhuram.
The State Hermitage publishing house has prepared an illustrated booklet for the exhibition with a foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage.
The exhibition curator is Maria Sologubova, junior researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of the East.