A trip to the ancient ruins of Dir’iyyah is an absolute must for all visitors to Riyadh*. A mere 15 minute journey from the Kingdom Centre, this abandoned town is one of the country’s most popular archaeological sites.
Founded in 1446 by Maani Al Muraidi, an ancestor of the Sa’udi royal family, the eight square kilometre town of Dir’iyyah was the historic seat of the Al Sa’ud dynasty, reaching its zenith at the end of the 18th century with some 5,000 residents and up to 1,000 visitors every day. But in 1818 after a six month siege it was laid to waste by the Ottoman Empire, who grew alarmed at the power of the Al Sa’uds.
Dir’iyyah first achieved prominence after the religious reformer Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab settled in the town in 1744 as advisor to the Al Sa’ud family. Wahhab, who had been outcast from his home in Qassim, was trying to promote a return to the original principles of Islam. His religious reforms are felt even to this day in modern Sa’udi Arabia and just outside the entrance to the ruined city is a newly rebuilt mosque complex dedicated to Wahhab, which stands on the site of his old house and mosque.
Completed in 2003, it is well worth visiting* for its sheer elegance, serenity and beauty.
Since 1972, Dir’iyyah itself has been meticulously restored, starting with 2.5km of outer walls and some of the major buildings including palaces and mosques.
You can wander freely along the narrow streets*, exploring many of the old ruins of traditional Najdi houses which would have a central courtyard and an upper storey supported by limestone pillars.
The windows in the ground floor rooms were normally triangular as this shape did not need a wooden lintel, necessary for the rectangular windows often found on the upper floors; and as a rule of thumb, the windows were set higher than a man on camelback to ensure privacy for the residents.
Some of the restored palaces are now locked up and you need special permission to be allowed inside; but if you’re lucky you might find some workers from the sub-continent busy in their restoration work and they are usually only too delighted to show off their not-inconsiderable craftsmanship.
Look for the roofs – thatched from palm leaves and branches and topped with mud – and the painted doors made out of tamarisk, or athil wood. Tamarisk trees (tamarix aphylla) were a common source for wood used in traditional buildings in the region of Najd, where Riyadh is located. Look also for the way several round limestone slabs are combined to make up a column which is then rendered with traditional mud and straw mix.
The most prominent building that has been restored is the Sa’ad bin Sa’ud mosque and palace, which seems to dominate the rest of the site. It has a large courtyard which was used to stable horses.
A short distance away is the Atturaif steam bath house which includes a changing room, a furnace for heating the water, a separate cold water bathing room and guest rooms. The building was waterproofed using special plaster and water was supplied from a well in the valley.
Close to the entrance is the Salwa palace, the largest on the site and the home of Sa’ud the Great who reigned from 1803 to 1814. It consists of five main parts built at different consecutive periods of time.
* Recent reports indicate that there are considerable difficulties visiting Dir'iyyah at this time. Road signs have been removed in some places and the old car park has apparently been closed. The ruins are apparently completely fenced off whilst archaeological work is completed, with an opening not rescheduled until sometime in 2010.
To reach Dir’iyyah, drive along the northern ringroad to junction 1C looking for the brown signs to “Old Diriyah” (NB do not follow the blue signs to the modern town!).
After a sharp right turn, you drive down a tree lined boulevard for 1½ kms and make a left turn at the roundabout.
Another 1½ kms further on you take another left turn (third exit) at the next roundabout and take the second turning to your right. (On this corner stands the newly built Al Wahhab mosque.)
Cross the little bridge spanning the wadi and park in the car park on your right. There is a restored ancient well to the side of this car park and late in the afternoon you can watch water being drawn in the traditional way using donkeys.
At the entrance to the site there is a visitors’ centre which explains much of what you will see as you wander around the old town.
Here you can also acquire a pamphlet in English which has a good map of the site and a
recommended walking route.
Dir’iyyah is freely open to the public during the hours of daylight and no permits are required to visit (but see advisory note above).
See more pictures by clicking here