Whoever comes to Riyadh and expects the cliché of a "typical" oriental city will probably be disappointed. Narrow alleys, the smell of perfume and spices at a lively suq and the ever present prospect of being invited to a cup of tea at a casual small talk - all that one usually finds at an old city center seems to be missing here. Instead, large highways divide Riyadh into rectangular pieces and encompass rather uniform and functional buildings. The best view one can get on this is probably from the visitor´s platform of the Faysaliyyah tower, one of two impressive skyscrapers, that shape Riyadh´s skyline and stands as a symbol for Saudi Arabia´s recent past and future ventures.
However, the past is not all too distant. There is one place that everybody interested in the genesis of the Saudi-Wahhabi condominium that would later form the basis of the modern Saudi state, should not miss. This place is Dir'iyya, now an insignificant suburb north-east of the capital, but once the centre of the first Saudi bid for statehood in the early 19th century.
We enter the remains of Dir'iyya on a warm Saturday afternoon and after a short while a guide welcomes us at the entrance gate. Although we hardly understand his Yemeni dialect, we still appreciate his lively reconstruction of the site´s history.
Nothing much is left of the typical Najdi mud-brick structures except for ruins and alleys. However, some buildings of historic significance have been renovated to a certain degree during the last decades. Apparently the Saudi government has grasped the possibilities that Dir'iyya harbors in both fostering a reference point for Saudi identity and as an authentic touristic site. One of those buildings is the mosque of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, the religious reformer who in 1744 sealed a pact with the Najdi prince Muhammad bin Al Saud and thereby established the dual framework of Saudi expansion and Wahhabi religious revival.
For official Saudi historiography, the ruins of Dir'iyya represent first, this religious-political legacy, and second the starting point for the first modern Arab upheaval against foreign encroachment, culminating in the Ottoman-Saudi war 1814-18 that left the town devastated in the now present shape. However, it is only the historic city center, called al-Turaif, that is forming the touristic site if Dir'iyya, whereas the other quarters within the Wadi have been razed and left no trace. What is still left and partly renovated is the city wall that surrounds the whole area and offers a unique view on the site. From here one also sees the oasis adjacent to original town that once was crucial for the town´s subsistence in the middle of the Arabian desert and now borders the modern Dir'iyya settlement.
As the sun sets the call to prayer starts in multiphone vibes around us. We sit on the top of the city walls and now get a real sense of the spiritual atmosphere that the combination of geography, architecture, climate, and religion once must have created. However, the call to prayer is permeated by the noise of a metropolis - expanding modern Riyadh, embodied by its now illuminated Faysaliyya and Mamlaka Towers, is already visible in not that much a distance and almost seems to swallow what is historically left in the heart of Saudi Arabia.
Read Part 1 and Part 2