Lists of the Seven Wonders of the World have been constructed from the Ancient Greek Herodotus of 425 BCE to today’s online voters (1). Each of these lists has missed out on the architectural beauty that exists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Rich in varying textures and usage, its buildings and landscapes include ancient mud-thatched forts neighboring contemporary shopping centers.
Al-Faisaliyah Tower is one of these steel constructions of 30 floors made to resemble a ball-point pen, as the reflective golden globe restaurant rotates at its axis. Pictured on many postcards, Al-Faisaliyah was the tallest building in Saudi Arabia in 2000 (2), allowing its diners to view as far as the deserts through floor to ceiling, triangular panes. A year later, Kingdom Tower, 65-stories of ultra-modern accommodations took its record (2). It places as the world’s third tallest building with a parabolic arch (3). Its peaks connect on the 99th floor by a sky bridge with panoramic views (4). Out of the three entry levels of luxury shopping, the first is open to general public. While, following cultural practice of gender segregation, the next two floors are reserved solely for female shoppers and staff. Here, one would find skinny jeans from Saks 5th Avenue to go beneath an abaya from Bedoon Essm.
Traveling north through the business district of Olaya and then following highways west to the desert, sculptures of an older medium are found. Built of mud and thatch, the ancient city of Al Diriyah was established in 1744 to serve as a military fortress against the Ottoman Empire (5). Once called ‘Najd’, meaning western-lying area, Diriyah sits on the outskirts of modern-day Riyadh and is the original home of the Saudi royal family (6). The siege of Diriyah, in 1818, caused its rulers to flee the damaged fort and rebuild a new life in Riyadh (5).
After many years of abandonment, a major restoration project started in 2000, keeping with traditional architecture (5). Sites include ceilings made of exposed wooden poles, open air windows of triangular cut-outs, and large dungeon-like doors of blaring geometric designs. In 2010, the Turaif district of Diriyah, which includes Salwa Palace and archeological finds, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site (5). Today, tourists can take part in traditional meals with floor-style seating, at Najd Village (7).
In contrast to the expected browns and beiges of the desert, Diriyah’s grounds are naturally sprinkled with date trees, streams, and greenery. On the edge of Diriyah lies Wadi Hanifa, a valley extending 75 miles from northwest to southeast. Traditional folklore presents a history of fertile farmland, which explains the origin of the city name Riyadh, ‘a garden’. As the capital city quickly expanded, pollution and climate change was found to be the cause of disturbed ecological balance, resulting in drought. While some areas of the wadi still remain dry, Ar-Riyad Development Authority has preserved parts of the wetlands for recreational activities (8).
Riyadh is a place that is often a mystery to those looking in from the outside. Its short history of vast development and the pressures to let things be, has produced a wondrous blend of old and new.
(1) Seven Wonders of the World
(2) Al-Faisaliyah Center
(3) Kingdom Centre
(4) Kingdom Tower
(5) Ar Riyadh: The Birthplace of a Nation
(6) About & History
(7) Najd Village
(8) Wadi Hanifa
Three days after Thanksgiving, I am racing against a red mustang to get to the last empty parking space at Club Fitness. Coming from the opposite direction, he loops into the diagonal spot. There are a few ways that I could have shown my disapproval. But I dare not challenge him. He looks as if he lives off of Muscle Milk.
One more lap around and I decide to park a few storefronts down. I’m sure that just before the holidays, I could have ignored these lanes and simply cut through parking spaces.
I use the slight jog through damp weather as a small warm-up for my scheduled 3-miler. But in case the selection of treadmills looked anything like the lot, I start to think of alternative cardio.
Walking into the gym, I’m greeted by “Extended Black Friday” vendors selling handmade trinkets, koozies and perfumes. Tempting. I politely decline.
This has been my month of attempted focus. Being still. My greatest challenge to date. By work contract, I have eliminated the option of changing jobs, cities, countries. Good. I’ve got the physical part down. Now, the mental. Being still. It’s a practice of listening to God and to others, and tuning out those subtle selfish desires of being someplace else…in location, in status, in life. Overthinking, when unnecessary. How successful have I been? Well…
Tonight, I blame the vibe in the room. Perhaps it’s the live DJ or everyone feeling good in their new apparel. Or just the crowd, in general. Everyone seems to be part of a pair, probably due to the $10 holiday joining fee. As a single, I missed the memo. Walking to the back, I look down and see newly laid matting. The “new carpet smell” is no challenge to the cologne doused over sweaty gym clothes of the bench presser. That machine wasn’t there before. I try to remember the last time I’ve been here. Why does it even matter? Grab a treadmill.
As predicted, the only cardio left to choose from was the Stairmaster or stationary bike. I go for the Stairmaster, the perfect spot for people-watching. The gym is one of the few places where people are expectedly nosey. A wiry little woman, likely in her 80s, browses the aisles of machines, looking at the picture instructions. I opt to scope out the trainer who turns this knob or clips that bar to convert focus from biceps to triceps. Then there’s that guy, who performs handstands and bear crawls across the gym.
It’s getting hot. Shedding a layer, I drape my jacket over the timer. All of the varying body shapes interest me. On one side of the gym, there’s the one woman who’s found a balance between feminine curves and muscular strength. I look around and many eyes, male and female, unbashfully eye her as she executes a burpee routine notorious for sculpted derrieres. Three machines down, an overly tanned brunette removes a sweat vest, to reveal abs of perfect symmetry… in the winter… after Thanksgiving. Figure competitor, I’m guessing. I pass the next 10 minutes spotting which women are long-distance runners vs. Sprinters. It’s all in the quads. The leg press machine just opened up. Wipe down.
The Crossfit cage is in my new line of eyesight. A brawny guy wearing a slit tank is knocking out pull-ups with simplicity. A back riddled with indentations that would put an anatomy major in awe. He knows this.
“There’s the trapezius muscle. And the latissimus dorsi..”
He drops down, shakes his arms out, turns around and is wearing a firefighter shirt. Makes sense…
There’s someone with a good sense of humor. A shirt saying, “I RUN better than the government”. He’s a marathoner sporting a 26.1 on the back. Then I spot bright orange, across the gym. A fellow Tennessee Vol. I decide to make that my route out the gym. After chatting, I find that he’s not an actual Vol, just lived near Knoxville. Meh…
Only until I’m seated in the car, as the rain hits the windshield, do I realize that zoning out as intended, never happened. “Be Still” fail. Tomorrow, perhaps I’ll try a run. Not my normal traffic-filled route. I need silence. Can I stay motivated without my tunes? Maybe I should leave my phone at home. But how would I track my time?….