Trip to Kingdom’s Capital Exceeds Expectations
by Chiara Ciampricotti Iacoangeli
Riyadh — Being an expat in this part of the world gives me the privilege to travel to places I previously could only have dreamed of or read about in travel guidebooks.
I have been living in the Eastern Province for more than two years now, and I knew very little about Riyadh, so I recently decided to travel to the Kingdom’s capital and see it for myself over a weekend.
What I found was beyond my expectations.
My husband and I hit the road very early in the morning. We decided to go by car even though it is a five-hour journey.
Just outside of al-Khobar, we started to see the sand of the desert — a seemingly never-ending land whose grains possess multitudes of colors and shapes. Driving through the desert is simply breathtaking. We listened to its silence and watched as the force of the wind shaped the dunes, which seem like living waves that constantly change the environment. Camels, shepherds, and slow moving trains are pretty much the only actors in this scene.
The road is straight — incredibly straight — and time loses its pace as we travel, but all out of sudden, the GPS brings us back to reality. It announces that our destination has been reached. At the beginning we are puzzled, nothing is there, but we drive a few meters off the road and we realize that we are in a place that looks surreal.
It is not easy to find the exact spot. It is indicated on Google Maps, but to arrive there can be challenging — indeed the area is called the “Hidden Canyons.” It is situated approximately 100 kilometers from Riyadh. This gem is an agglomeration of desert rock formations with astonishingly picturesque waters in between. If you get the chance to visit the area during the winter season, it’s the best choice because you will be able to see the full streams, as the water decreases when the warm weather kicks in until it dries out completely.
It does not take long to get to the modern metropolitan area of Riyadh. Densely populated with six million people, you can simply understand where you are by the congested traffic of the central area in rush hour. Riyadh has grown into a world metropolis thanks to the oil, and it is the business hub for the country. This is a city filled with modern architecture, and it is amazingly rich with striking skyscrapers all aglow at night with colorful lights.
A child’s gold funerary mask was found in the city
of Thaj, at the Tell Al-Zayer site in a royal tomb
discovered in the summer of 1998. It is now
displayed in the National Museum and it is one of
the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia.
Our second day in Riyadh was devoted to cultural and historical sightseeing. Riyadh has a “history” to tell and we see important monuments that are worth a visit. I would like to mention some places that really appealed to me and I would strongly recommend for a visit.
Located in downtown Riyadh, Masmak Fortress is a castle made of clay and mudbrick. It’s like a scene taken out of the movies: A large fortress representing an empire. Surrounded by sand, this squat fortification was built around 1865 and was the site of Ibn Saud’s daring 1902 raid.
This stunning architecture lets you relive the memories of the years gone as the ancient castle has been turned into a museum. Renovated in 2008 and brought back to life, the structure now looks like it was built yesterday, but the museum inside does a pretty good job of recounting the story of the raid. Highlights among the exhibits include maps and a fascinating range of photographs of Saudi Arabia dating from 1912 to 1937 in galleries converted from diwans (seating quarters). The roofs are covered with painted palm trees, turmeric Ethel wood, and exude an old world charm that evokes an Arabian painting.
The Al Faisaliyah Center is a commercial skyscraper located in the business district of Riyadh. It is the fourth tallest building in Saudi Arabia and its architectural originality is made by the round portion at the top. It is also called the “Star Dome.”
This famous meteorite became the entry piece for the new National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. It was found in 1932 in the remote Empty Quarter Wabar desert by British explorer and writer St. John Philby.
The ‘Hidden Canyons,’ which are situated about 100 kilometers from Riyadh, are a sight to see with their desert rock formations surrounding picturesque bodies of water.
Undoubtedly the top sight in Riyadh, the National Museum (opened in 1999) is the result of the latest technology and is very accessible to all visitors, with almost every explanation available in English.
Situated on the premises of the National Museum, the Murabba Palace was built by the founder and first King of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, in 1934 as an expansion of the city of Riyadh. It took five years for the construction of the palace — completed in 1939. The museum has a duneshaped facade.
This state-of-the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Encased within modernist architecture, its two floors contain eight well-designed and informative galleries covering Arabian history, culture, and art. It combines several collections and pieces that had, up until then, been scattered through several institutions and other locations in Riyadh and the Kingdom.
The Kingdom Tower is a modern marvel on a unique landmark, rising on top of a 300-meter tower and overlooking the city of Riyadh. Its unique position gives it the advantage of being one of the most important tourist attractions in the country and a symbol of the city.
On the trip to Riyadh, it is possible to observe the cargo line of 556 kilometers that begins at the King Abdul Aziz Port in Dammam and passes through al-Hasa, Abqaiq, Al-Kharj, Haradh, and Al-Tawdhihiyah, before arriving in Riyadh. Construction of the line began in September 1947, and the first trains started moving between Dammam and Riyadh in the early 1950s.
Many Special Treasures
To be sure, there are many special treasures to be discovered here.
I was so impressed by a big meteorite that I wanted to know its interesting story. It is a large fragment of a meteorite found at the Wabar crater in the desert of the Rub’ al-Khali, known as the Empty Quarter — one of the most desolate places in the world. John Philby, a British scholar, explorer, writer and Colonial Office intelligence officer, had heard of Bedouin legends of an area called Al Hadida (“place of iron” in Arabic) with ruins of ancient habitations, and also an area where a piece of iron the size of a camel had been found, so he organized an expedition to visit the site. After a month’s journey that was incredibly tough — some of the camels even died — on Feb. 2, 1932, Philby arrived at a field that was a half a square kilometer in size, littered with chunks of white sandstone, black glass, and iron meteorite.
The story of Saudi Arabia’s past is even told through the ancient traditional attire — men
with their traditional white thobe and women with colorful dresses, black abayas, and niqabs
enriched with jewelry and adornments. The eighth and final hall of the National Museum
highlights Hajj rituals. Its first wing includes a large horizontal display model of Makkah.
I was enraptured by the golden funeral mask as it reminded me of the internally worldwide famous Mask of Agamemnon. This mask was found outside the city of Thaj, where archaeologists discovered the first century grave of a young royal woman. In her tomb, gold, pearls and precious stones, including a Hellenistic gold funerary mask were found. It’s not only the beauty of this finding that I appreciated, but the thinking on how different cultures influenced one another. In those ancient cultures where burial customs were important, anthropomorphic masks had often been used in ceremonies associated with the dead and departing spirits. Funerary masks were frequently used to cover the face of the deceased. Generally, their purpose was to represent the features of the departed — both to honor them and to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world.
The Exhibition of “The Hajj and the Two Holy Mosque” hall allows you to enjoy a place where not everybody has the chance to go. The exhibition in this hall focuses on the pilgrimage since ancient times to the present day, comprising the model of Makkah, holy rites and an introduction to Al Haj rites; the old pilgrim routes in the Arabian Peninsula; the history of Makkah, its courtyard and the Holy Ka’aba; the history of Al Madinah and its courtyard; Al Haj throughout centuries until the present time, and the role of Saudi Arabia toward the Ka’aba pilgrimages.
The Masmak Fortress is a traditional building that played a major role in the Kingdom’s
history as a clay and mud-brick squat castle. The interesting interior features comprise
the traditional colorful windows and doors, and the traditional diwans (seating quarters).
In this section, you can see the marvelous architecture of these holy places, and the magnificence of the big doors that are so well decorated and the awesome spiritual environment. It was a very impressive ending of the tour!
At the end of the day, we lived the magical atmosphere of an enlightened city, especially the Kingdom Tower, which stands out from the other buildings. It’s Riyadh’s landmark tower, a stunning piece of futurist architecture. It’s particularly conspicuous at night, when the upper levels are lit up with constantly changing colored lights. Rising 302 meters high, its most distinctive feature is the steel-and-glass 300-ton bridge connecting the two towers. High-speed elevators fly you — at 180 kilometers per hour — to the 99th Floor Sky Bridge, which offers astonishing views.
And one more time Saudi Arabia showed us its own fascinating ambivalence: Under these high skyscrapers there are big parks where people lay down their rugs and have dinner in the Bedouin tradition. Moon and stars are high in the sky, no matter what is all around, and life goes ahead following the ancient style.