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