Saudi Gazette – Saudi Arabia has not always been known for its preservation of history. The Kingdom has in the past been more focussed on modernization, often to the detriment of its ancient heritage.
However, in Turaif, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, the government is engaged in a major development project to restore an 18th-century civilization, transforming it into a major educational tourist attraction.
Although the site will not open until 2016, the Arriyadh Development Authority recently gave Al Arabiya News an exclusive tour of the ruined city.
Turaif, and the surrounding city of Diriyah, was the political stronghold of the First Saudi State.
It sits on the banks of the Wadi Hanifa, a large fertile valley just northwest of the capital. Thickly populated with date palms, the oasis has given humans refuge from the desert for over 80,000 years.
The First Saudi State was established in 1744 by the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud. He forged an alliance with Sheikh Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, an itinerant preacher.
Sheikh Abdul Wahhab agreed to support the king’s political and military rule in exchange for protection and influence over state religious affairs, a power relationship which persists between their descendants to this day.
Abdul Wahhab lived across the valley in the Bujairi area, recently redeveloped by the government and turned into a series of parks, shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants, as well as a research center devoted to studying his theology.
Turaif was encircled by an exterior wall, which protected the city from a number of attacks in the late 1700s.
However, by 1818, the Ottoman sultan had become critically concerned by the spread of Al-Saud power across the Arabian Peninsula, and sent his Egyptian viceroy Ibrahim Pasha to crush the enemy.
The city was destroyed after a six-month siege, the story of which will be told by a new military museum.
After the city’s downfall, the Saudi leader was taken to Istanbul and executed, while his family were meanwhile driven into the desert.
It was not long, however, before his grandson returned to establish the Second Saudi State, which lasted from 1824-91.
By this time, Turaif and Diriyah were regarded as beyond repair, and thus Riyadh was chosen as the capital.
Turaif was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2010.
Inside the ancient city
It was a perfect day for a tour. The sun shone but the air was cool — winter temperatures here usually hover around the low 20s.
Our architect guide arrived and we crossed the valley on a bridge leading to the foot of Salwa Palace, the largest, most impressive structure in Turaif.
Below the bridge, bulldozers cruised past an overturned car, clearing the debris and repairing the damage done by the recent floods, which historically occurred annually but these days are rare.
At the foot of the bridge, facing Salwa Palace, is a visitor center with a panoramic glass facade. It features a 300-seat rooftop theater for viewing a nightly multimedia show projected onto the ruins.
Most of the new museum buildings are complete but still empty. The only other visitor in the reception hall was a ginger cat, loafing in the sun.
From the rooftop you get a stunning view of the ruins. Off to the right, you can see a pair of original wells and the new farming plot, set to be planted with traditional crops such as eggplant, onions, garlic, spices and figs.
Near the farm is a small building built around a curious chimney-like structure. There’s a small doorway at the bottom — an animal’s entrance to the building?
“That’s actually one of the old toilets,” says our guide. “In fact, most of the towers in Turaif — the most notable part of the skyline — are the old palace toilets.”
“Their square design made them the strongest structures in the city. Over time, the walls crumbled, but ironically the toilets remained standing.”
Some are 25 meters high, and their thrones would’ve been right up top, making for a dizzyingly long ‘long drop’.
Our tour continued, past the ruined pillars of the Grand Mosque where the royal family used to pray together every Friday, up a path through the limestone foundations of the city, straight into the heart of Salwa Palace.
This four-story, 22 meter mud-brick building was the seat of a government which once controlled a territory bigger than France.
Our tour guide led the way through a winding series of open-air suspended walkways and glass tunnels designed to get visitors as close as possible to the ruins.
A team of over 1000 consultants, archaeologists, surveyors, architects, and hundreds of laborers has been excavating and strengthening the ruins, as well as building a number of museums in amongst the ancient palaces, each focusing on a different aspect of political and everyday life during the First Saudi State.
Plans for a restoration aimed at “exposing Turaif’s historical, archeological and educational importance” date back as far back as the 1980s, and accelerated after a royal decree in 2000, according to the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), the government body in charge of the project.
The complex is expected to open in 2016, at a total cost of about a half-billion dollars.
The site is important for the ruling Al-Saud family because its history is a key part of their narrative. For them it demonstrates how their power over the Arabian Peninsula stretches back centuries further than 1932, the year King Abdulaziz founded the modern Saudi Arabia.
Moving deeper into the warren-like city, we passed scores of workmen hurrying to complete the project before the expected 2016 opening. Some were high up on scaffolding, adding protective capping to the palace walls, while others carted building materials around in wheelbarrows.
Archeologists are still excavating parts of the site, and will continue in certain areas even after it opens to the public.
So far, eleven palaces have been discovered, as well as the Salwa Palace treasury, the guest and bath houses, and the Grand Mosque.
“We are still excavating the treasury, but we haven’t found any treasure here — it was all taken long ago,” said a project surveyor.
He continued, “Turaif was built by slaves. Each emir (prince) had maybe 150 slaves. They would start by laying a foundation of circular limestone blocks straight on the bedrock. Then they built the walls from dried mud bricks and palm tree trunks. Leaves and branches were used as roofing.”
Sparks flew from a circular saw as we passed down a narrow alleyway, its raucous sound fading quickly as we rounded a few corners.
Our guide stopped occasionally to talk to the laborers, giving instructions, paying attention to tiny details like the height of a new wall, or the alignment of the lights and sinks in the public toilets.
Walking down the narrow, twisting streets is a bit surreal. Wonky wooden drainpipes jut out randomly from the sloping walls. The open holes serving as windows gape like mouths at passersby. Our guide compared it to a scene from a D. Seuss book.
We ducked into the gloom of one of the old houses and walked through to a shady open-air courtyard. This house is just one of a series of buildings which make up the new souk, or Arabian market.
A pleasant, earthy smell from the recent rainfall fills the rooms and passageways of future cafes and restaurants.
“The ADA is currently looking for businesses to fill the souk, and vetting them carefully to ensure an authentic cultural experience,” our guide says.
Some restaurants will serve the local Najdi cuisine, and there will be shops selling traditional handcrafts.
In addition to the souk, museums, exhibits, archives, there will also be live cultural demonstrations activities including falconry and horse shows, live handcrafts, and ‘ardha’ sword-dancing.
Capitalizing on the popular practice of renting an ‘istiraha’ — a kind of villa or guest house – with friends or family, traditionally decorated rooms will be available to rent by the day, located amongst the ruins.
Looking across the valley at the ruins, you can imagine the guards patrolling the city walls and calling to one another from the battlements. Camels drinking in the oasis below. Tired Bedouin travelers arriving from the desert.
This is a place where history feels alive — something all too rare in such a quickly modernizing country.
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom full of treasures. Hopefully, one day they’ll be open for the world to see.