The At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah encompasses the remains of a traditional human settlement developed in a desert environment, dating from the 15th century.
ad-Dir’iyah was the original home of the Saudi royal family, served as the capital of the first Saudi dynasty from 1744 to 1818 and is associated with the the spread of Salafism. Its remains consist almost entirely of mud-brick structures including palaces. They are a unique example of the Najdi architectural and decorative style developed to cope with the extreme desert climate.
Community Perspective: Most reviewers so far have been limited to external views, as the site has laid untouched for a long time and only recently became the focus of major restoration works. From 2023 on, the site has become accessible (and seems worth it!) but it needs prior booking.
Map of Turaif QuarterLoad map
I visited At Turaif in the early evening when the air temperature had dropped to an acceptable level. Entrance to the historic area was only possible through Bujairi Terrace, a newly opened area full of elegant restaurants, the construction of which was probably one of the reasons why At Turaif was inaccessible for so long.
Just on the edge of Bujairi Terrace, a man speaking good English stopped me and asked for a ticket, which surprised me as I had no idea about the need to buy a ticket in advance. When I explained the situation to him, he smiled and let me in, saying that next time I would have to buy the ticket online.
It took me about 5 minutes to walk from the entrance of Bujairi Terrace to the pedestrian bridge that connects Bujairi Terrace to At Turaif.
I was pleasantly surprised by At Turaif itself. I am convinced that the below average rating of this monument by other visitors is mainly due to the fact that they visited the site before it was fully open. The site has a pleasant atomosphere, which was enhanced by artificial lighting in the evening. There are not many fully preserved buildings on the site, but a visit still gives a good idea of the extent and architecture of the historic town. During the tour, it is possible to visit several galleries free of charge that are dedicated to the history of At Turaif and the Arabian Horses.
Before visiting, I definitely recommend everyone to get acquainted with the history of the place and its importance in the history of Saudi Arabia in particular.
Ivan and I visited this WHS on our return trip from Al Ahsa Oasis, heading to Buraydah and Ha'il Rock Art, Riyadh being conveniently on our way. So we made a short break in the Ad-Diriyah section, where At-Turaif, the first capital of the Saud dynasty, is located. It was founded in the 15th century, its importance grew in the 18th century, and it was destroyed in 1818 during the Ottoman Empire's attack on Arabia.
Interestingly, even though the royal family regained control of the area, they did not rush into its reconstruction (see Solivagant's review below for more on that). Inscription on the list of world cultural heritage probably helped to solve this dilemma, and at the same time, the concept of the entire Ad-Diriyah neighborhood was devised, which should combine the modern with the old. The plan is to preserve the historic part of At-Turaif and build around it a modern district with shops, restaurants, hotels and a convention center - all in the same clay tones, albeit with more modern architecture.
Unfortunately, it was still a big construction site at the time of our visit. The historical part itself was quite difficult to find, as others (special shoutout to Thomas and Wojciech) have also complained about it. The official parking lot is about a kilometer from At-Turaif, one part of the road is closed, no pointers anywhere. So we just eyeballed the location based on the map and parked in a nearby parking lot intended mainly for workers. We walked about five hundred meters along one of the walls covered with pictures of how amazing Ad-Diryah would look after they're done with it. Finally we saw a wide footpath between two buildings. A group of tourists who were dropped off by their guide at the entrance also confirmed that we were at the right place. As the guard explained to us, in case someone oblivious missed it, they are still reconstructing it, but the ruins of the old city could be seen at least from the viewing area.
Quite a disappointing visit, but at least there was the viewing area access and apparently, mere weeks after our visit, the site has been opened to the public. Well, there's that.
The Turaif Quarter in Al-Diriyyah is not the easiest World Heritage Site to access, as I found when I visited in fall 2012. The quarter is located in the valley of Wadi Hanifa, northwest of the city of Riyadh, and it was the first capital for the Saudi royal family. The green of the wadi was refreshing, but I really wish I'd been able to see more of the mud-brick structures composing the old capital. Unfortunately, the Turaif Quarter was undergoing restoration during my visit, and I was unable to enter through all the construction. Instead, I had to resign myself to viewing the quarter from a section of the old city wall located within the buffer zone at the top of the valley, and to driving on the road alongside the quarter in order to watch the restoration work in progress. The old city wall did provide an up-close view of mud-brick construction similar to other buildings within the quarter, which was some consolation for only being able to view the inscribed area from the outside. Additionally, there was a visitor center near the wall with a map and information about the inscribed area.
Logistics: A car is necessary to reach the Turaif District in Al-Diriyyah. The impressive National Musuem of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh also has good historical background information.
Al-Diriyyah is the ancestral home of the Saudi royal family/clan and is situated a few miles from Riyadh. It was destroyed in 1818 when the Ottomans invaded Arabia. Even when the Saudi family regained control of the area it remained ruined - possibly due to the Wahhabite fear of idolatry of old things which has led to much of Saudi Arabia's tangible heritage being destroyed. (Ref Fatwa 16626, issued in 1994 by `Abd al-`Aziz which reads in part: "It is not permitted to glorify buildings and historical sites. Such action would lead to "shirk" because people might think the places have spiritual value.") In fact the place is significant as the location where Wahhabism was "born". To quote Wiki "In 1744, Ibn Saud took in a fugitive religious scholar named Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, who hailed from the town of Al-Uyaynah, lying on the same wadi some 30 miles upstream. Ibn Saud agreed to implement Ibn Abdul Wahhab's religious views, and what later became known as the First Saudi State, with its capital at Diriyah, was born."
As elsewhere in Saudi Arabia a completely new town has been built nearby and for the most part the ruins lay untouched. A resoration project had been started however by the time we visited in 2002 and some buildings showed the results in their pristine mud walls (photos). Nevertheless much of the site still consisted of ruins and contained some atmospheric alleyways and ruined houses. Our visit was limited to external views though some of the restored buildings include palaces and mosques. As always in Saudi Arabia the "Unbeliever" gets to see a very limited range of sights (indeed will meet relatively few "Saudis" as all the work you are likely to be involved in seeing will be done by immigrants apart from a few Saudis sitting behind desks in museums or hotels doing very little!). But, if you have gone to Saudi as a tourist, as we did, everything is going to be so strange anyway - it was early on in our trip and my wife was still getting used to her black Abaya!! In all honesty, the "Chopping Square" in Riyadh which we had seen earlier that morning (Although there was no "Chopping" going on then and the grill down which the blood from amputated hands flowed was clean enough) was of more interest. But - on reflection it was nice to have seen Al-Diriyyah to put some "flesh" onto the bare bones (no pun intended!!) of Saudi history.
2010 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Deferral, to "Make the comparative study more thorough; .. Abandon the current policy of reconstruction and cultural interpretation of the remains on the property and adopt instead a conservation policy the priority of which is the safeguarding of the property’s attributes of architectural integrity and authenticity"
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