Diriyah: Illuminating the hidden history of Saudi Arabia’s first capital

The kingdom's first seat of power was built along the banks of Wadi Hanifah, north-west of Riyadh

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Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, is the largest city on the Arabian Peninsula, with one of the fastest-growing populations on the planet. However, few outside the kingdom are aware that it is actually the second historic capital of the state. Far from the glass, concrete and steel of today, the country’s first seat of power – Diriyah – was built from mud bricks along the banks of Wadi Hanifa, north-west of Riyadh.

After a lengthy and painstaking assessment phase that concluded last year, the Diriyah Gate Development Authority is now in the midst of the implementation phase of its restoration plan, beginning with the historic Al Turaif District and then extending to multiple other sites, set to conclude in 2025. This will then be followed by a period of observations and refinements as part of the third and final optimisation phase, ensuring the methods used are performing as intended.

“[Our] main objective is to study the historical landscape, to better understand the foundation of [the Saudi Arabia’s] social and economic development,” heritage management senior director for DGDA, Paola Pesaresi, tells The National. “It's a very large and complex system of settlements, not just one.”

“We use a methodological approach,” she explains. “Natural heritage, cultural heritage and community are the three keys to understanding life in the area. We go through the proper value assessment, with the support of the [local] communities, in order to have them at the centre of any decision making.”

Founded around 1446, Diriyah served as the home of the Saudi royal family, and later, the capital of the First Saudi State. The establishment of the state in 1727 caused Diriyah to rapidly increase in both size and wealth.

Diriyah was later invaded during the Ottoman-Saudi War (1811–1818) where, after a six-month-long siege, the city capitulated to the Ottomans, ending the First Saudi State. In 1824, the Second Saudi State was founded in Riyadh, just to the south of Diriyah.

By the 1970s, the Saudi government had begun to make plans to restore Diriyah. In 2010, Al Turaif District was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, initiating a concerted effort to restore the area and make it ready for tourists. These efforts brought with them a desire for more modern amenities for visitors, resulting in new structures – such as Al Turaif’s contemporary series of galleries – that sit among the historical buildings, illuminating the story of the First, Second and Third Saudi States.

With the establishment of DGDA in 2017, the Saudi government has implemented a continuing series of conservation efforts as part of the country's Vision 2030 programme to transition from an oil-centric economic model to a more diversified portfolio focused on arts, culture and tourism. The DGDA officially opened the Al Turaif District to the public last December and began welcoming local and international visitors to the historic district.

At times, the requirements of managing the local landscape and the needs of the development plans clash. However, by being embedded within the development team, DGDA’s heritage management team is able to engage with the project’s stakeholders and devise mitigation measures.

“It's living heritage. Whenever you talk about conservation, you need to expect to find multiple layers,” Pesaresi explains. “Some of [the buildings] were already transformed over the years because they're being utilised. Even in the 1970s, they were using the same materials for the restoration and conservation work that was done then. It is very difficult to distinguish building techniques.”

“With such a large [historical site] that has been used up to recent times, it is difficult to set priorities,” she continues, “but we consider all of the heritage as important to be preserved. The latest phases of occupation are the ones that perhaps present more challenges; even if built with mud, often the technical skills were not strong as in the past, but the community values them and we want to ensure they are transmitted to next generations.”

The DGDA has had to be very careful when selecting best practices for the conservation of the historical buildings. For example, while it would be typical to replaster the walls of the buildings to create a sacrificial layer, protecting them from the effects of solar radiation and rain, the team is trying to avoid this technique in Al Turaif, as it would cause the older buildings to become indistinguishable from the newer ones, risking the erasure of the visual history these structures embody.

At the same time, climate change is also a significant concern to both the DGDA and the Saudi government. Taking no action – or unsuitable action – could place Al Turaif at risk of serious damage, especially if recent changes in the region’s weather patterns continue along their present trajectory.

“In Diriyah this year, we have experienced unprecedented rain in the area,” says Pesaresi. “We are now trying to understand if this is a trend that we have to expect [and] act accordingly with the necessary protection measures.”

In order to best safeguard Diriyah going forward, perhaps the most important aspect of the heritage projects is DGDA’s commitment to bringing in young Saudi students and specialists, and training them so that they can continue to protect this important part of their country’s history for future generations to enjoy.

“What is very important is to build the new generation of architects, engineers and archaeologists, to [allow them to] be able to take care of their own heritage,” says Pesaresi. “It's important to involve Saudis in all aspects, to empower them [and] to give them the skills they need to be able to take care of their own heritage.”

“The only way to guarantee long-term, sustainable preservation on the site is to engage with the community that lives around it,” she concludes. “In a way, it's already happening; people are extremely attached [because] they see it as part of their identity.”

Updated: July 28, 2023, 11:33 AM