The life story of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia follows a journey from riches to rags to untold wealth, and tracing the emergence of Ibn Saud, who became King Abdul Aziz, presents a fascinating itinerary. Wearing a long skirt and long-sleeved T-shirt, although no head covering, I went sightseeing undisturbed on foot and in cars to locations of Saudi history.
The ancestral story begins in 1744 in Diriyah, a mudbrick village and the stronghold of the first Saudi family dynasty. A flourishing crossroads of traders and pilgrims, it served as capital until 1818, when Turks conquered it and banished the Saud family to neighboring countries.
Today the Diriyah Gate project reimagines and transforms the antique village into a 2.5-square-mile cultural and mixed-use destination. Calculated to celebrate the country’s rich cultural history, it centers around Al-Turaif, the original citadel area and a UNESCO Heritage site.
Eventually the site will include a diverse collection of galleries and museums; leading brand hotels and stores; a 15,000- seat arena; and a Formula E racetrack. The mammoth project will open in phases, starting with the Al-Bujair district. Behind huge crenelated sandstone walls and picturesque towers, it in- corporates a maze of twisting streets lined with low-lying mud structures brightened with colorfully painted, heavy wooden doors. Four museums pay homage to Saudi history, daily life, military achievements and the Arabian horse. Scattered among cafés and restaurants serving local cuisine, streetside craftsmen demonstrate weaving and calligraphy. A bridge crosses over to the Al-Turaif district, still in the process of being converted into a large open-air museum built around the actual sites of key historic events.
Because so much is unfinished, and perhaps because of the pandemic, not all of Diriyah was open when I visited in early 2020. But through some apparent misunderstanding, the public relations officer showed me in, and I spent two fascinating hours alone wandering up and down stone steps in the multilevel buildings, poking into collapsing palaces and mosques which were marked with signs but still in ruins. Eventually I encountered a golf cart with officials demanding to know what I was doing there and not accepting my “working journalist” explanation. Instructing me I was “trespassing on the property of the king,” they graciously but firmly escorted me out.
Proceeding to the next stage of Saud family history, I summoned an Uber to drive back through the ultra-modern streets of northern Riyadh to its central historic feature, Masmak Fortress. Growing up during the years in exile, the young Ibn Saud went to the desert to learn strategic and survival skills. In a daring raid in 1902, he stormed and captured the fort, gaining control of Riyadh. The head of a spear he’s said to have thrown remains embedded in the garrison door.
The four-tower stone structure now houses a museum where visitors see a vivid black-and-white film with lots of spears and gunfire portraying a reenactment of the battle with fierce and striking Ibn Saud standing out dramatically among his followers. For the next three decades he consolidated tribes and lands on the peninsula, employing negotiation and tactical skill and applying Islam as a unifying influence. In 1932 he declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with himself at the head.
From the fort I walked about a mile north to King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, a complex of parks and cultural buildings developed around Al Murabba, the original 1930s royal palace. The district covers nearly four square miles of landscaped lawns and paths, open-air exhibits, museums and exhibition halls, a theme park and the impressive Saudi National Museum documenting the kingdom’s history.
Excellent displays mounted in both Arabic and English cover the peninsula’s geography, pre-Islamic Arabia, the life of Mohammed, Islam’s role in the region, the caliphate and early Saudi states. Full-scale models of Diriyah and Mecca take up two entire rooms. Step-by-step exhibits detail the life and accomplishments of the king who ushered his country into the age of oil.
On a tour of his Al Murabba Palace residence, Abdul Aziz becomes a familiar figure. You’ll find divans, rifles, elaborate clocks, braziers and the first royal Rolls-Royce among the artifacts capping his ultimate achievements. Souvenirs and family photos show the progression from audacious warrior to royal politician, and one notable picture portrays the king seated firmly among 19 of his sons, six of whom later ruled as descendants of the fierce, accomplished, crafty patriarch who established the peninsula nation.
INFO TO GO
The second-largest in the world, Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport lies 21 miles from downtown. Travelers can book taxis, airport shuttles, shared rides and private vans or summon Uber, Careem and internet car services. The yellow Metro line runs from Terminal 5 into the financial district.
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