The clock’s ticking here, folks. The window of opportunity to fix the mess that has us leaving the country has closed. We’ve made our plans for the return trip, the dates are set, the flights booked, the house is packed up. On the plus side, the people moving into our villa are buying all the household goods, so I was spared the departure sale chore and had some free time last week. And when I heard that the long-awaited Historical Diriyah area was finally open I jumped at the chance to squeeze in a visit. Especially when it was Layla Blue Abaya‘s idea for us to go together in the first place. If you don’t know who that is, just scrounge up a Saudi job and move here. Nothing to it. Right away you’ll find yourself relying on her blog pretty regularly.
It turns out that what’s actually “open” is not the historic zone itself, but a gateway area in Al-Bujeira, with shops, restaurants, mosques, plazas, a park, and a museum. A friend solemnly promised me that you can tour the historic area on the weekends now, but we were there on a weekday morning and met only locked gates, and a security guard who said we could tour with a permit (which we didn’t have).
Okay, so not everything IN the gateway area is open either. More isn’t than is. To the naked eye, the museums are in the same state of near-completion that they were when we got here two years ago. According to latest reports (January 2015), the targeted completion date for the whole project is still 2.5 years away, which puts it at mid-to-late 2017. But you’ll be pleased to know that along with every other project in the Kingdom, it is “on track.”
It’s still worth going, though, to enjoy the area and take in the views.
And SO MUCH MORE, as we learned in our morning spent with cameras and a v-e-r-y patient driver. (“Stop here! Wait! I don’t know how long. No, over there! Turn around!” Bless him.) So this week we’re doing a joint blog—10 Things to Do at Historic Diriyah. You can get five at BlueAbaya.com, and five here.
1. Expand your mind: Well, technically that’s not something you can do at Historical Diriyah. Signage so far is all in Arabic and is pretty much limited to names and directional labels.
We saw a Western group–diplomats or businessmen–being toured around while we were there, so clearly there’s some appreciation, at some level, for what a great place this can be to show to visitors. (Hmm…Things to Do at Diriyah, 1.a.: Write letters asking for English signage. Maybe slip them under the door at the TI office.)
Lacking that, I’ll help you out. Here’s your public-service, mind-expanding, questionable-authenticity history lesson:
Diriyah is the site of the first settlement in the area of Riyadh. It lies along the Wadi Hanifa, a dry ravine that becomes a river once or twice a year when the once-or-twice-a-year storms roll through. It’s the pretty-obvious green path in this Google Earth shot:
It’s now lined with royal palaces (lots of walls, lots of razor wire) and upscale housing compounds, and it’s also where you’ll find one of my favorite haunts, the nurseries of Beautiful Garden. There’s a walking path along the bottom, which is especially lovely when things bloom in the early spring.
Diriyah is the ancestral homeland of the Saud tribe, which conquered outward from there to establish the first Saud dynasty in the middle of the 18th century. The empire expanded and collapsed in the way empires do as its rulers proved capable or not, bickered, and ran up against competing empires doing the same thing. In the early 1800s the Saud/Wahhab state was conquered by Ottoman and Egyptian forces, which eventually burned the city. When the Saud state rose up again a few years later, they rebuilt farther south, in Riyadh, and the ruins of Diriyah were left behind. Eventually, Bedouin nomads moved in and a new town of Diriyah grew beside the ruins. On paper, it’s still its own community, but driving around you’d think it was just a neighborhood on the edge of Riyadh.
For a most glorious and honorific version of the story, check the official Riyadh city site, where you get this:
Following the transfer of the capital to Riyadh, Ad’Diriyah has returned to stillness, which is the stillness of dignity, grandeur and sublimity, which is derived from the bright glorious past. A visit to the remains of Ad’Diriyah is a useful and entertaining picnic to families where they see that the environment and the splendid city that has witnessed the reformation call and the rise of the Saudi State.
And so much more. Or this mini-documentary lets you see the site in video:
Hmm. Honestly, you did none of that at Diriyah. So let’s start over.
1. (The real one.) Be noble: Okay, forget about how noble the site is. YOU can actually be one of those people who supports historic preservation, without the self-congratulatory tote bag or ostentatious bumper sticker.
As I mentioned when describing my last trip to see the remains of an old Arab village, a lot of modern Saudis don’t understand why anybody would care about these run-down old places. There’s a zillion of them around the peninsula. So what? And many Muslims here say that making a special fuss about buildings or art or historic sites raises the risk that people will start to revere them and veer toward idolatry.
So it’s heartening to see the efforts being made to preserve and improve upon the old city. It’s not clear yet what will be rebuilt or merely preserved in its present state, but by going, showing interest, and asking for more information you support the restoration effort.
2. Ruins-spotting: The core historic area is a construction zone, so you can’t walk around inside. But the views give you a sense for how impressive the city was, up on its escarpment.
I’m a sucker for abandoned places. I like to wonder what a view from this spot would’ve looked like 200 years ago. What activity would’ve been going on? How were people dressed? What were the children playing?
The Kingdom has been advised not to construct any building without evidence of what it looked like 300 years ago, so I expect that when the work is finished it will be possible to walk the streets of the old town and see them essentially as they were. Cool.
Meanwhile, it’s just as evocative to see the structures as they are now:
3. Door-spotting: Painted doors are one of the few things that are uniquely and truly Saudi. Not that no one paints doors, but no one paints them quite like this:
Right? I’ve seen antique Saudi doors made into dining tables and coffee tables. Getting one was on our list, but…you know how the time goes. I DID have time, though, to get myself a Saudi door phone cover from Blue Abaya Designs.
That’s me. And my phone. In the position in which we are most typically found. And behind us is the door the cover design came from. We found some others:
Try it–pull up the Facebook page, scroll through the designs, then give yourself a point every time you spot a door that matches one of the designs. Award yourself a prize when you win. (You decide how many points equals a win. Make yourself earn it.) Then just go ahead and get your own phone cover–it’s a whale of a lot cheaper than a piece of furniture and you’ll have it in your hand every day.
4. Picnic and let the kids play at the park: “Green space” is in short supply in Riyadh. As it should be–water is gold around here, and should be conserved. Still, there’s nothing as good for the soul as grass and trees, little paths and water.
Hint: Go early in the day. The grass doesn’t have magical litter-repellant properties, and despite the many well-placed trash bins this place is thrashed by the evening. Maybe by the time the work is all finished people will have been trained to clean up after themselves. (A girl can dream, anyway.)
5. Spend a few hours with a friend. Eventually, there will be places for coffee, ice cream, shopping. It looks as if Najd Village restaurant is already open (call to check–I don’t want to lead you astray), where you can enjoy a traditional Saudi meal in a private room.
Which will all be great. But we didn’t actually need any of it. This is the great secret about life in Saudi Arabia. Stripped of the array of options available for entertainment elsewhere in the world (movies, concerts, sports, kids’ school activities, bars, clubs, volleyball tournaments, open-mic nights, polar-bear plunges, ethnic festivals…) you just, well, spend time with people. So the tri-lingual Finn with the Saudi husband and the bi-national children, and the square American granny expat with the comparable complexion spent a great morning exploring, sweating, taking pictures, and laughing.
And that’s what I’m sorriest to leave. The friends I’ve made, the time to enjoy them, the way living here shrinks the world down to a ball of multi-colored, multi-textured string so small and so wondrously tangled that you can reach out at any moment and touch almost every part of it.
So go exploring. Take somebody you love, or somebody you barely know. Then take the experience home to the people you left behind and tangle them into the adventure with you.
I have loved my life in Saudi Arabia.
You can find Historical Diriyah on the west side of Riyadh, just off of Dammam Road. The coordinates in the general neighborhood are 24.739322, 46.573306.