Welcome to Diriyah, birthplace of the first Saudi state, historical crossroads of pilgrims and traders, and home to one of the kingdom’s most ambitious heritage developments.
Curved along the outskirts of Riyadh, and formed on the oasis that spilt from the banks of Wadi Hanifa, Diriyah’s mud-brick walls once housed a thriving desert city that was a powerhouse of culture and commerce. Its At-Turaif district, the area’s citadel-marked primary quarter, was the original seat of power for the kingdom’s Al Saud family. In 1745, the city was named the country’s capital, laying the foundations for what would later become a unified Saudi Arabia.
Diriyah fell in late 1818 at the end of the Wahhabi war and was succeeded as the nation’s capital by the nearby settlement of Riyadh. The ruins of At-Turaif were designated a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2010 and the area has since been the subject of a painstaking restoration plan aimed at bringing its historical legacy back to life. While work at Diriyah is still under way, there are ample heritage-rich sites that are open to the public.
The Diriyah’s Al Bujairy district is already welcoming visitors. Once home to religious scholar Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, its maze of twisting streets lead to low-lying mud huts that have been transformed into sparkling heritage sites, including Diriyah Museum, a former palace with exhibits on Saudi history and the restored Al Zawiha Mosque. Look for the colourful geometric patterns that decorate the walls and heavy wooden doors of the district’s buildings, and enjoy streetside demonstrations of traditional crafts, such as weaving and calligraphy. Numerous cafés and restaurants are dotted around, offering authentic local fare, alongside trinket-rich gift shops that are ideal for browsing.
The carefully renovated Saad bin Saud Palace, built in the traditional Najd style, and Burj Faysal wall tower are a snapshot of the city’s storied past, as is the Diriyah Wall, once its last line of defence.
Work is ongoing in the At-Turaif quarter, which connects to Al Bujairy via bridge, and is set to be transformed into a vast open-air museum, housing a series of themed collections alongside mosques, galleries, and a traditional market selling authentic crafts and souvenirs. Visitors will also be able to pass through the district’s streets and see first-hand where key moments in Saudi Arabia’s history occurred.
Parts of the district are slated to open in late 2019, and through into early 2020, as the wider cultural site – including luxury hotels, curated retail destinations, and other attractions – moves to launch. For now, Diriyah continues to offer a mesmerizing glimpse into traditional life in Saudi Arabia, and the stories that are shaping its future.