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Pre-Islam Saudi treasures on show for first time

By Laura Allsop for CNN
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Saudi's pre-Islam treasures
  • Louvre displays 300 artifacts from Saudi Arabia, many unseen and pre-dating the birth of Islam
  • Exhibition highlights Saudi's importance as a trade and transport hub throughout the ages
  • Works include gold jewelry unearthed in a tomb in Thaj and an opulent 17th century door to the Ka'ba
  • Exhibition part of an accord between Louvre and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

London, England (CNN) -- A "groundbreaking" new exhibition of rare artifacts from Saudi Arabia's ancient past -- some which have never been shown abroad -- has opened in the Louvre, Paris.

The world-famous museum is hosting Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a traveling exhibition showcasing 300 archeological treasures found in the Gulf country, many pre-dating the birth of Islam.

"It's a groundbreaking historic event," the Saudi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abulaziz Al Saud told CNN.

"Saudi Arabia has never been known for its history, and I don't mean recent history but the procession of civilizations that have existed in Arabia," he said.

The exhibition is the result of 40 years of excavation across Saudi Arabia, with several artifacts only unearthed in the last decade.

Gallery: Artifacts include jewlry, statues and bowls

Works include funerary stelae -- upright commemorative stone slabs -- dating as far back as 4,000 BC; huge statues of the Kings of Liyhan, an ancient kingdom in what is now Saudi.

Also on show are major discoveries from the island of Tarut; gold and pearl jewelry, including a single gold glove, found in a tomb unearthed in the ancient town of Thaj.

Some of the artifacts were only discovered in the last five years and have recently been restored.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghabban is Vice President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).

He told CNN: "These objects and this exhibition tell people about the history of Saudi Arabia, about the participation of Saudi Arabia in the history of humanity and also the exchange and the peaceful relations between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world."

The exhibition at the Louvre literally gives you another dimension to the heritage of Saudi Arabia and its colors.
--Minister of tourism and antiquities, Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abulaziz Al Saud

Saudi has been a major trade hub since the dawn of time, and was a connecting point between the Arabian Peninsula and the rest of the world.

Trade routes criss-crossed the country, the largest in the Arabian peninsula, followed later by pilgrim routes leading to Mecca and other holy sites.

Another section of the exhibition explores Saudi's role as the cradle of Islam, displaying artifacts such as a door from the Ka'ba in Mecca, a gift from an Ottoman sultan in the 17th century.

Focusing on the roads that took pilgrims to the country's holy sites, it suggests that Saudi Arabia was specially chosen to spread the message of Islam because of its geographical position linking major civilizations.

Today, Saudi, a member of the G-20, is participating increasingly in global politics, and Roads of Arabia gives Riyadh an opportunity to assert its cultural and historical significance, al-Saud said.

Roads of Arabia is the result of an agreement between the Louvre Museum and the SCTA in 2004. An exhibition of Islamic masterpieces from the Louvre at the National Museum in Riyadh kicked off the agreement in 2006.

"It's a breakthrough, and of course the Louvre has a reputation," al-Saud said.

As for the Louvre, a relationship with the largest country in the Middle East comes as part of a wider strategy to extend its cultural influence to the Gulf.

In 2007, France and Abu Dhabi signed an intergovernmental agreement to open the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the cultural district being built on Saadiyat Island. It is currently expected to open in 2013.

The Louvre's Islamic Art curator Carine Juvin told CNN: "The Louvre Abu Dhabi was a very important project for the Louvre.

It's about ... a cultural exchange ... It's an occasion for people of the Gulf to learn much more about European and Western culture."

Roads of Arabia will be on display at the Louvre Museum until September 27, after which -- in the spirit of the roads which it celebrates -- it will embark on a tour of museums across the world. Spain is slated as the next host.