The Museum of Contemporary Ancient Arabia

FIND : NYU Abu Dhabi / New York

excerpts from Robert Kluijver's Spring 2014 FIND Fellowship project
www.f-in-d.com/stories/museum-of-contemporary-ancient-arabia / Spring 2014

To create the Museum of Contemporary Ancient Arabia, FIND Spring 2014 Fellow Robert Kluijver brought together art collections and scholarly resources that relate the ancient history of the Arabian peninsula to the contemporary Gulf. Two “galleries,” About Ancient Arabia and Modern Dilmun appear here. Explore the full Museum at www.f-in-d.com/stories/museum-of-contemporary-ancient-arabia

About the Museum of Contemporary Ancient Arabia

The Museum of Contemporary Ancient Arabia explores the ambiguous relation of contemporary Gulf societies with the ancient history of the lands they inhabit.

MoCAA’s collection of ancient artifacts documents how the ancestors of the current Arabians saw themselves, revealing an astonishing degree of refinement and cultural pluralism. The architectural heritage tour underlines how early civilizations flourished on the peninsula.

As the history of Ancient Arabia is generally ignored, Robert Kluijver, the curator of this museum, invited artists and scholars from several Gulf countries to become involved. They reflect on their relation with history and how it is shaped by contemporary social dynamics and policies.

The Carmathian cafeteria and the Language Center are contemporary expressions of forgotten pasts, while the bookshop provides access to scholarly resources.

Finally, the guided tour by MoCAA’s curator underlines how the absence of an established narrative about ancient Arabia allows many subjective readings of history, none of which can be termed “false”; repossessing the history of the peninsula may well provide the basis for culturally diverse and thriving contemporary societies.

map of the Arabian Peninsula provided by Robert Kluijver

Historic and Geographic Scope of Ancient Arabia.

Arabia refers to the Arabian peninsula, i.e. the six countries now reunited in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait) plus Yemen. Historically, however the peninsula also comprises the Syrian Desert, extending through Iraq south and west of the Euphrates, most of Jordan (except the western fringe) and the southeastern quarter of Syria. There where the settled areas gave way to the desert, Arabia began.

In ancient texts the distinction is often made between “Arabia Deserta” and “Arabia Felix”: desert Arabia and happy Arabia. The latter refers to the settled and often prosperous areas in the southwestern part of the peninsula (Yemen, Dhofar in Oman, and the Asir in Saudi Arabia). The Romans identified a third Arabia in their province “Arabia Petraea” (rocky Arabia) covering the stony desert from Palmyra in Syria to Northwest Arabia.

In terms of historic epoch, Ancient Arabia refers primarily to pre-Islamic Arabia, the period spanning from the 5th millennium BC to the 7th century AD. The most intense period of Ancient Arabian history is the millennium from recently 500 BC to 500 AD, when the peninsula was apparently more densely populated than at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, as we will subsequently point out, in terms of local historic consciousness everything before the mid-18th century seems to be ancient. Almost all the currently ruling families in the Gulf came to power in the period from the mid 18th to the early 19th century, and their sense of history, which is transmitted through official education to the rest of the citizenry, only stretches back so far.

As the inhabitants of ancient Arabia left very few written historic records until the 20th century, most information we have about them comes from archaeological discoveries (including thousands of inscriptions in Southern Arabia), and the rare and often inaccurate descriptions from external sources; from ancient Sumerian clay tablets to travelers in the Islamic era. In fact, even today most information about ancient Arabia comes from external sources.

Modern Dilmun

Faced with a troubled present, the island of Bahrain desperately needs to face its history. Tensions between the original population of the island and its rulers, who captured the island in the 19th century, most certainly are rooted in history. Interestingly, the desire to ignore the Islamic period until the arrival of the current ruling family has given a boost to pre-Islamic archaeology, providing the island with the most extensive infrastructure and scholarship on this period in the Gulf region. Read about the findings during the Searching for Ancient Arabia team’s visit to Bahrain in our magazine.

In this section, the Kuwaiti artist, writer and researcher Liane Al Ghusain first studies the similarities between ancient inscriptions of the desert and contemporary social media. She remarks the vacuity of most messages sent through these communication channels, both then and now. In reaction she uses these same channels (spray paint, hashtagsetc) to bring ancient content (from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Quran, the Bible) into the disturbed and amnesic contemporary setting of Bahrain.

The Origins of Social Media in the Arabian Peninsula

Statement by the artist, 

Liane Al Ghusain – July 2014

We often reiterate things we know already, as opposed to introducing any new information into our online social circles - sharing things about our current mood, what we're eating, where we are going, what we are selling or buying. I find the way we use hashtags, tweets, statuses, etc. to be rather absurd in their trite, pithy manner. However, this is anything but a novel development, as I found out researching pre-Islamic inscriptions from the Middle East. Our ancient ancestors, in a variety of languages such as Nabatean, Safaitic and Cuneiform, used to inscribe rocks, boulders, walls and caves with their emotions, daily events and lists of goddesses, in a fashion uncannily alike to the way we use social media. Millenniums ago, they etched mundane sentiments such as “he fed on truffles and he grieved for Yd” and “the goats have bourne young amidst the new growth” in public space.

When I was in Bahrain, a place that felt quite saturated with history and covered in many layers of covered-up protest graffiti, I was inspired to re-introduce some ancient inscriptions from the Middle East in a number of sites, almost like they were online status updates. I sourced quotations from texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Quran, and the Bible, placing them in context-relevant sites such as near the Bahrain Fort, the Saar temple, on a 5,000 year-old burial mound from the Dilmun civilization and in an arts district in Manama. In some cases I translated the quotations into Arabic, in others I re-wrote sentiments in my own words, coining phrases such as “immortality fixation” and “#Dilmun,” inspired by Gilgamesh's wish to live forever.

Holy Quran, Surat al Shu’ara 26:129: And take for yourselves palaces and fortresses that you might abide eternally?

Letter from Nanni to EaNasir, a Dilmun merchant based in Ur (Mesopotamia) dealing in copper ingots from Magan (Oman). Clay tablet, 1750 BC, 12 x 5 x 3 cm. It reads:

“Now when you had come you spoke saying thus: 'I will give good ingots to Gimil-Sin.' This you said to me when you had come, but you have not done it. You have offered bad ingots to my messenger, saying 'if you will take it take it, if you will not take it go away.' Who am I that you are treating me in this manner, treating me with such contempt, and that between gentlemen such as we are! I have written to you to receive my purse, but you have neglected it. Who is there among the Dilmun traders who have acted against me in this way?”

"When I enter the netherworld, will rest be scarce? . . . Let my eyes see the sun and be saturated with light! When may the dead see the rays of the sun?" Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics version translated by Andrew George), pg 71.

Cuneiform cylinder with inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II describing the rebuilding of the temple of the mother-goddess Ninmah at Babylon. Clay tablet, 604–562 BC, 11 x 5 cm. Ninmah (also called Ninhursag) is usually considered the mother of the Goddess of love, Inanna; she is a goddess of fertility.

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Created by — Robert Kluijver

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