In the middle of the old city in Riyadh stands the 150 years old Al-Masmak Palace, also known as Al-Masmak Fortress or Fort. Since its construction, the site has witnessed the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, remaining a symbol of the country’s unification.
1. Unifying 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.
Made out of palmwood, the main gate of the fortress is a staggering 3.6 metres high and 2.65 metres wide. A small opening in its centre, called al-Khokha, allows only one person at a time to pass through the 10-centimetre-thick entrance, a remaining defensive feature from the palace’s war days.
On the left side from the entrance, the mosque, supported by several columns, has a mihrab and shelves on the walls for muṣḥaf from the Quran. The walls were built with deliberate holes to provide good ventilation on the inside.
Majlis means sitting room or sitting place. At Al-Masmak, the rectangular room is located directly in front of of the entrance, with ventilation holes, similar to the ones in the mosque, in the southern and entrance facing walls.
Conical towers stand in each of the four corners of the fortress. At approximatively 18 metres high, the walls of the towers are even thicker than the walls of the fortress itself, the thickness of about 1.25 metres providing extra security.
Column supported interconnected rooms surround the courtyard. A staircase on the eastern side leads to the first floor and roofs. Among the chambers, there are three residential units: the ruler’s residence, the treasury and the guesthouse.