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Volume 50, Number 1January/February 1999

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The Centennial’s Jewel—Riyadh

Written by Arthur Clark

The men who stormed Masmak fort in the heart of Riyadh on January 15, 1902 would be bedazzled by today's capital city, the centerpiece of this year's centennial celebrations. Since that daring raid 100 hijri years ago, Riyadh has grown almost beyond description. Then, visitors arrived on camelback at one of nine gates and, once inside, threaded their way along narrow, sandy streets shadowed by crenellated, mud-brick houses. In this century, Riyadh has changed dramatically—perhaps more radically and rapidly than any other modern city.

"One hundred years means a big change in any city, and Riyadh needs only 10 years to change totally," says 'Abd al-'Aziz Al ash-Shaykh, director of research and studies at the Riyadh Development Authority (RDA), which oversees city planning. "The city would be unrecognizable to King 'Abd al-'Aziz from the 1950's [when he died] ... or even to King Faysal from the 1970's," he adds, noting that Riyadh's recent annual growth rate of 8.1 percent makes it "one of the fastest-growing cities in the world."

Riyadh long ago burst out of the mud-brick walls that ''Abd al-'Aziz refortified within 40 days of seizing Masmak fort. Today the capital hums with activity, broken five times a day by the call to prayer. Heavy traffic flows through a steel-and-glass landscape, illuminated at night by neon and sodium streetlights, into ever-expanding suburbs and to towns and cities beyond.

As late as 1917 the heavy wooden gates of the city still swung shut during the weekly congregational prayers at noon Friday. But those portals—like the city's 7.5-meter-high (25') earthen walls—have long since disappeared. The population of the capital, just 8000 people in 1902, has rocketed to some 3.5 million, say city planners, and the "old city" of about one square kilometer (0.4 sq mi) that 'Abd al-'Aziz captured is now only a minuscule part of a metropolis that has grown to nearly 400 times that size.

Changes came slowly at first. 'Abd al-'Aziz had "to establish the basic elements of the kingdom," explains Al ash-Shaykh, which culminated in the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. By then, despite the worldwide economic depression, Riyadh's population had climbed to around 30,000, but the city still stood within its old walls.

Major developments were in the wind, however: In 1933 the king approved an oil concession agreement with the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL). That resulted, in 1938, in the discovery of the kingdom's first oil field at Dhahran on the east coast, and immediately after World War II important new income began flowing into a country whose economy had been precariously dependent on minor commercial, agricultural and fishing activities and uncertain revenues from the Hajj. Changes came increasingly quickly to Riyadh beginning in the 1950's as the widespread use of the automobile, the advent of rail and air traffic, and the introduction of steel-and-concrete construction all impacted the capital.

By mid-century Riyadh had pushed well outside its original boundaries, and was on the verge of momentous new growth. The king's construction of Murabba' Palace north of the walls in the late 1930's was the initial step, and it was quickly followed by more new construction. Soon after King 'Abd al-'Aziz died in November 1953, "the last of the walls and gates finally succumbed to the relentless pressure of modernization," writes William Facey in Riyadh, The Old City, "and the major mud buildings of the city center—the old palace and the Great Mosque—were demolished," to be replaced by buildings of concrete and stone.

Even in today's Riyadh, however, King 'Abd al-'Aziz would still recognize old friends from the places and palaces where he worked, lived and mingled with his countrymen for more than 50 years. Indeed, the city is striving to preserve and protect the few structures that remain from his era and, when that's impossible, to reconstruct them using traditional styles or building techniques.

Two major projects worth a total of about 1.6 billion Saudi riyals ($425 million) are the centerpieces of this effort: the Qasr al-Hokm project in the old city center, and the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center at the Murabba' Palace complex about a kilometer (half a mile) to the north.

The Qasr al-Hokm project, which began in 1976, set in motion the rehabilitation of old Riyadh. Of most interest to historians, the RDA has preserved Masmak fort within a wide square, and rebuilt the city's main Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque at its original location to accommodate 17,000 worshipers. In another key development, city planners have rebuilt the Qasr al-Hokm or "Justice Palace"—King 'Abd al-Aziz's headquarters after retaking Riyadh—on its original site in traditional architectural style. Two covered passageways between Qasr al-Hokm and the mosque recall the bridges originally built to allow the king to cross above the traditional market area, "and invoke the strong traditional links between the seat of government ... and the religion of Islam," says an RDA report.

The project has also reconstructed two city gates, a small part of its wall and a watchtower, all at their original sites, and built several public squares and a big new suq, or traditional marketplace. Visitors today can retrace the path of early 20th-century guests arriving to meet the king. Walking from the eastern, al-Thumairi Gate a couple of hundred meters down to al-Masmak Square, they will find Masmak fort on their right and Qasr al-Hokm straight ahead.

In Kuwait and Her Neighbors, Dame Violet Dickson described the scene at the square in front of the sprawling qasr when she arrived via al-Thumairi Gate with her husband in 1937: "Suddenly we were in front of the King's palace in the great market square. The open space was crowded with Bedu and camels, and seated in a long row on a datcha [earthen bench] were those awaiting audience with His Majesty."

Later, she watched the 'ardha, or sword dance, from a window in the palace: "It was now about eight o'clock. Down in the court, drums were beating, and men dancing with swords in upraised hands, while lines of others were swaying to and fro with linked arms and chanting some sort of war song, telling of love and courage.... Slowly the dancers moved toward the king, who then joined in and there in the distance, sword in hand and towering above the multitude, he danced with them for what must have been 20 minutes."

Masmak fort, the redoubt to which 'Abd al-'Aziz first laid siege in 1901 and which he retook in 1902, fell on harder times than the palace. "It is used only as an arsenal, jail and storehouse by Ibn Sa'ud," wrote British explorer-diplomat Harry St. John ('Abd Allah) Philby, who first visited Riyadh in the winter of 1917-18, in The Heart of Arabia. Today, the fortress has been born anew as a museum operated by the Department of Antiquities and Museums. Resplendent with traditional wooden doors and other accouterments of yesteryear, its high-ceilinged rooms are devoted to exhibits about the unification of the kingdom.

The final stage of the Qasr al-Hokm development plan is being carried out in tandem with private enterprise to improve the wider area's appearance and encourage investment. The district encompasses a number of old mud-brick houses dating back to 'Abd al-'Aziz 's time and before. The RDA's Heritage Program study has suggested that owners convert these buildings from residential to commercial use to make them viable economic units.

The goal of the Qasr al-Hokm project is "to keep the heart of the city alive," says Abdul-rahman al-Sari, director of urban and cultural development for the RDA. Riyadh's main business district has moved to the north, Al-Sari points out, but by providing a core of public buildings, infrastructure and services the RDA hopes "to convince the people to come back and invest their money in the old city."

Considerable spending has been directed recently to the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center, which includes educational, cultural, historical and religious facilities in the vicinity of the Murabba' Palace, which the king used as his majlis, or reception rooms, from the late 1930's until his death. "Qasr al-Hokm is the administrative part of the city center, and we hope the Historical Center will become the northern node and the cultural part of the city center," explains Tariq al-Faris, director of the RDA's project management unit.

The original Murabba' Palace complex was so grand that new arrivals sometimes mistook it for the capital city itself. "Away in the distance was what I thought must be the city of Riyadh: a great fortress with many towers rising above the walls and tops of many buildings," wrote Dickson in Kuwait and her Neighbors. Only when Riyadh itself suddenly appeared amid the palm groves to the left did she realize that "what we now saw was no city ... but the King's new palace, ... then in the course of erection."

The challenging King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center project, for which ground was broken only 19 months ago, covers some 360,000 square meters (3,000,000 sq ft). It includes not only the Murabba' Palace and associated mud-brick palaces, which have been renovated using traditional Najdi materials under the eye of a Saudi master builder, but also a number of brand-new facilities built using traditional Najdi architectural elements.

The Historical Center includes the Riyadh Water Tower, another city landmark. Nearby stands al-Hamra Palace, named after its distinctive red color and built by Crown Prince Sa'ud, who became king in 1953 after his father's death. The palace later became the chambers of the kingdom's first Council of Ministers.

The Center is located in a large public park set with gardens and pathways, and is reached easily by automobile. A separate special park planted with 100 date palms symbolizes the centennial, and a major Riyadh avenue, King Sa'ud Street, runs through the complex. The objective, explains al-Sari, is to make the Historical Center so accessible that it becomes "part of the daily memory of the city."

A world-class national museum, covering 29,000 square meters (312,000 sq ft), lies immediately east of the main square, fronted by a sweeping wall of yellow Riyadh limestone. The museum features comprehensive cultural, scientific, religious and historical sections, and the unification of the kingdom is the subject of a major, two-story gallery. West of the square are the restored Murabba' Palace, the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, and the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Mosque. A large library and an auditorium to the south round out the development.

King 'Abd al-'Aziz would certainly recognize the Murabba' Palace and other original structures: two towers and a section of the north wall, and the mud-brick "treasury" building in the courtyard of a second palace where he lived. That palace was torn down and a new building constructed in its footprint to house the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives after studies showed that structural inconsistencies made the original impossible to preserve. But the treasury—whose massive mud walls keep it comfortable even in Riyadh's searing summer temperatures—was successfully renovated in keeping with its past.

In renovating the Murabba' Palace, the private, Riyadh-based foundation Al-Turath ("heritage") relied on the knowledge and skills of Abdulla Bin Hamid, a Saudi master craftsman who grew up near the site. Bin Hamid is one of the few men remaining with firsthand knowledge not only of traditional Najdi construction skills, but also of King 'Abd al-'Aziz himself.

"Abdulla is well-versed in Najdi architecture and has special expertise in juss, or gypsum plaster," which covered palace pillars and walls and served as a canvas for palace decoration, says Zahir Othman, Al-Turath's director general. "We totally renovated the Murabba' Palace, putting the building back as it was in the last days of King 'Abd al-Aziz." Work included replacing steel beams that had been added in later years with traditional athl (tamarisk) wood supports, restoring old columns, doors and shutters, and replacing damaged decorative tiles with tiles manufactured in Egypt—the only place where work similar to that of the originals is still being done.

The 65-year-old Bin Hamid recalls much of the original interior of Murabba' Palace because he was involved in "continuous building" in the complex beginning half a century ago. That included neighboring princes' palaces, four of which have been rebuilt using mud brick.

Bin Hamid notes with a twinkle in his eye that when he was young and in a hurry he used to slide down the courtyard columns in Murabba' Palace to get to the ground floor fast. Surveying the palace today, he says he's happy with what has been accomplished. "It's for a very good cause, the memory of the king," he says. "As much as the newspapers and television talk about King 'Abd al-'Aziz, they cannot give him his due. He was a gentle, faithful, respectful, strong man."

Documenting what was inside the palace in King 'Abd al-'Aziz's time proved quite difficult. "There are a lot of photos of the external building but very few internal ones," explains Othman. Two of the most valuable references were Kuwait and Its Neighbors and Life magazine, he says, opening a copy of Life dated May 31, 1943 to a picture showing the building's central courtyard. "This photograph convinced our client [the RDA] to go with the original, sharaf plaster design" on the balcony balustrade, he says.

The design consists of mud bricks stacked in pyramids, in rows of 2½ bricks, 1½ bricks and a single brick, and then plastered. The style can still be seen in the courtyards and atop the walls of the remaining old mud-brick houses of the city.

Paradoxically, some of the best photographic records of old Riyadh were the work of the very men who, ultimately, helped pave the way for its transformation into a modern city. They included Philby, who served as an intermediary between King 'Abd al-'Aziz and SOCAL in the early 1930's, and who also opened the first automobile dealership in the kingdom; Karl Twitchell, who carried out the first survey of geological resources in the country and was another SOCAL intermediary; and Max Steineke, the indefatigable geologist whose pioneering work led to the discovery of Saudi Arabian oil.

While photos from the early 1950's still show a maze of traditional, flat-topped mud-brick buildings bordered by palmeries, a 1955 picture of road-work in the city center clearly tells the story of the future—one in which the car, not the camel, would rule the streets. "New streets superimposed upon the ancient city will be straight and 16 meters (52 ft) wide in contrast to the winding three-meter (10-ft) streets of earlier days," reads the caption.

"We've lost a lot," says Othman, former director of planning and architecture for the RDA. "But I think it doesn't matter what we've lost. What we might lose is the question. There are still a good number of buildings that have to be restored in different parts of the city."

Dr. Fahd al-Semmari, deputy secretary of the kingdom's 100th Anniversary Committee and general director of the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, will occupy one of the new offices at the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center. He says he's proud that "pivotal parts" of the kingdom's history have been saved in Riyadh. "I feel that what's been done in the al-Hokm area and at the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center is something pleasing to every historian. We have preserved history there."

The protected and restored monuments in the modern city illustrate a special marriage of past and present, he notes. "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has witnessed astounding and unique development in the last hundred years," he says. "This is what we are celebrating in the centennial."

Al-Semmari emphasizes that the centennial is being marked in cities kingdom-wide. But he calls Riyadh "the jewel of the celebration" because it was the "gateway" for the country's unification, and because today the city's architectural heritage reflects Riyadh's central place in the kingdom's history. "Riyadh witnessed the beginning of the establishment of the state," he says, "and we call her 'the Queen of Saudi Arabia.'"

Arthur Clark is a staff writer for  Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. He is the author of numerous articles for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 16-29 of the January/February 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1999 images.