Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, boasts a uniquely beautiful mix of architectural styles. While the city is a modern metropolis, complete with towering skyscrapers and a 99-story-high sky bridge, you’ll also find the 150-year-old Al Masmak Fortress in the heart of the old quarter.
A vast clay and mud-brick citadel that witnessed the birth of a kingdom, Al Masmak — the word means a high, strong and thick building — serves as a proud reminder of Saudi Arabia’s storied history. In 1902, King Abdulaziz captured the fortress and took control of Riyadh (his ancestral home) after having lived in exile in Kuwait. From this fortress, Abdulaziz Al Saud conquered and united the different kingdoms and provinces that make up the Saudi nation as we know it today.
Built in 1865, the fortress has served many purposes. Although originally used to house the garrisons who protected the city, it later was an ammunition warehouse after the raid by King Abdulaziz and, later still, a prison.
Today, the restored building is a museum, a favorite among tourists wanting to step back in time and explore Saudi Arabia’s roots. Some of the fascinating exhibitions on display show maps and photographs of Saudi Arabia dating from 1912 to 1937, alongside a range of historical artifacts, works of art and audiovisual presentations. Visitors can also watch a short documentary that re-enacts the capture of the fortress by King Abdulaziz, whose spearhead you can still see embedded in its wooden gate. The spacious courtyard outside the fortress is also worth exploring. And right next to the fortress is the Souq Al Zal. Selling traditional handicrafts, jewelry, spices and cashmere scarves, the market is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs representative of the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage. The museum is open from 8 a.m. to noon and 4 to 9 p.m. every day except Friday. Mondays and Wednesdays are reserved for families.