On Thursday March 16th, TV5 Monde premiered a new episode of the Embarquement TV series showcasing the historical beauty and cultural wonders of Saudi Arabia’s capital. Nestled in the Nejd region, Riyadh is a city where history and tradition are still alive. A true 21st century metropolis, the Saudi capital is home to the Kingdom’s historical roots.
The documentary invites you to embark on a journey to discover a city that blends the past with the future.António Buscardini, TV Director
1. Al-Masmak Fort
A citadel made of clay bricks and dried mud, the Al-Masmak Fort was built in 1895 in the old city. It’s been a silent witness to the major events related to the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Construction of Al-Masmak Fortress started in 1865, during the reign of Imam Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki Al-Saud. It was completed in 1895, but by that time, the Second Saudi State, under the House of Al-Saud, had collapsed. In 1881, the Al-Rasheed family took control over the fortress and with it over the city of Riyadh, driving the Al-Sauds into exile in Kuwait.
On 15 January 1902, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud returned to the city to reclaim his family’s place on the throne. With only 63 men, 23 of whom were told to wait at the border in case the mission failed, he managed to retake the fortress. During the fight, Fahad bin Jalawi bin Turki, cousin of Abdulaziz, threw a spear at the Rasheedi governor Ajlan with such force that, even though it missed its target, the tip got lodged into the door of the palace, where it still remains today as a memento of the battle.
Once Abdulaziz retook the city, he started the unification of the various tribes, sheikhdoms, city-states, emirates and kingdoms of most of the central Arabian Peninsula. The process was completed in 1932, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under King Abdulaziz Al-Saud being established on 23 September, marking the Third Saudi State.
In 1995, the palace was turned into a museum dedicated to the history and unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The fortress stands as symbol of regaining power and the rule of the country, displaying along its corridors the features of that era and its leaders through audio-visual exhibitions, works of art, relics and photographs dating back to the early 20th century.
Al-Masmak is one of the most prominent national monuments still standing today in Riyadh. It is one of the few still remaining older constructions in the city, the old town standing out from between the surrounding modern buildings and tall glass skyscrapers.
The fortress is built out of clay and mudbricks, its name, Masmak, meaning a tall, strong building with thick walls. It is divided in six main parts: the gate on the western side, the mosque to the left of the entrance, the majlis facing the entrance, the well on the north-eastern side, the towers in each of its four corners and the courtyard.
2. Diriyah and Al-Bujairi
Located about 20 minutes from downtown Riyadh, Diriyah is a must-see attraction. Founded in 1446, and overlooking the Wadi Hanifa Valley (Ouadi Hanifa), Diriyah encompasses impressive sites such as the historic quarters of Al-Turaif, the seat of government at the time, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010.
The originality of Al-Bujairi is its mosques, its small houses scattered throughout the neighborhood and which testify to the social life and architecture of that time. Today Al-Bujairi has a lively and dynamic atmosphere with many attractions for visitors. It is also the new high-end gastronomic destination for gourmands.
The Bujairi Terrace project has more than 20 world-class restaurants that offer visitors exquisite international cuisine as well as a wide variety of traditional local dishes in a beautiful setting.
3. King Abdullah’s financial district and Al-Faisaliah Tower
Riyadh has undergone a meteoric transformation in just a few years. The small village, surrounded by the desert, has become a modern and cosmopolitan capital, home to several skyscrapers and business centers. The King Abdullah Financial District first started construction in 2006, a master plan designed by Larsen Architects. It consists of 83 buildings, some high rise towers, and some skyscrapers. It was designed by several international architects. It’s a city within the city. It creates a huge contrast between the Saudi architectural identity and the modern architecture.
Al-Faisaliah Tower is one of the most popular skyscrapers in Riyadh. It is 267 meters high with 55 floors. It is famous for being the first skyscraper built in Saudi Arabia. The tower is notable for the huge glass globe located near the top. The globe measures 24 meters in diameter and is composed of 655 glass panels.
The globe is the golden sphere placed at the top of Al-Faisaliah Tower. The globe has three floors with a lounge and a restaurant, perfect for a romantic dinner. There’s a terrace where visitors can discover the city of Riyadh through a 360 degree panoramic view.
4. Al-Thumama desert and camel breeding
Saudi Arabia has one of the largest sand deserts in the world and offers many activities and excursions for history buffs and adrenaline junkies. The red sand dunes of the Al-Thumama Desert, located north of Riyadh, are perfect for outdoor adventures. The trip is often organized in groups of ten “buggies”, one of the best ways to experience the desert and feel the power of the dunes.
Another particularity of the desert is the breeding of dromedaries also called Arabian camels. Their population is estimated at about 1.6 million in the Arabian Peninsula, 53% of which are found in Saudi Arabia. It is Saudi Arabia’s national animal.
For centuries, the camel was the most important logistic element for the forefathers of current Saudis. They traveled, they drank the animal’s milk, they ate its meat. The camel is part of the local culture.
5. Camel Club
Today, the link between Saudis and their camels remains strong. For some years, the “Camel Club” of Riyadh has been defending the tradition of the camel as an intangible heritage, as well as promoting the indigenous breeds.
The “Camel Club” organizes several beauty contests, something that camel lovers know how to appreciate. The contests are different according to the colors. There are categories for white, red and black camels. Each contest is separated from the other.
The competitions often see a display of very expensive camels who compete against one another. Camels reach very high prices in the whole Gulf region, some of them being valued at up to 6 million dollars.
6. The Shemagh and Jabal Fahren
The camel is not the only popular element of the Saudi tradition. The scarf called “Shemagh” is the most distinctive accessory of Saudis. There are mainly two types: red is definitely the most famous one; white is normally used for special occasions like weddings.
Commonly known as the “Edge of the World”, Jabal Fahren is located at the end of the Tuwaiq Mountains, northwest of Riyadh. It is one of the preferred getaways of city dwellers, perfect for weekends. At the top of the mountain it’s possible to see the sunset with a feeling of infinity that may not be seen anywhere else. Almost as if standing at the edge of the world.