A Traveler’s Handbook: Places to Visit
Although Riyadh has officially been the capital of Saudi Arabia since 1932, it played second fiddle to Jeddah until the 1970s. Built with oil boom money, Riyadh is now a high-tech oasis of glass, steel and concrete, home to huge hotels, even larger hospitals and one of the biggest airports in the world. The centre of Riyadh is called Al-Bathaa and is the oldest part of the city. Al Bathaa is home to the bus station, GPO and most other things a traveller needs. Most of Riyadh’s places to stay are near the bus station, as are the coffee shops and shwarma stands.
The Riyadh Museum, to the west of Al-Bathaa, has all the usual stuff covering the history and archaeology of the kingdom from the Stone Age to early Islam. There’s an interesting display on Islamic architecture and a separate Ethnographic Hall, with clothes, musical instruments, weapons and jewellery. Signs are in English and Arabic.
Once the citadel in the heart of Old Riyadh, the Masmak Fortress was built around 1865 and extensively renovated in the 1980s. Inside the mud fortress there’s a nicely reconstructed traditional diwan (sitting room) with an open courtyard and a working well. The fortress is now a museum devoted to Abdul Aziz and his unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Other museums in Riyadh include the King Saud University Museum, which has a display of finds from archaeological digs, and Murabba Palace, with exhibits of traditional clothing and crafts.
The Al-Thumairi Gate, in the centre of town, is an impressive restoration of one of the 9 gates which used to lead into the city before the wall was torn down in 1950. The flash, new, modern Al-Thumairi Gate is just across the road. About 30km (20mi) out of town is one of the largest camel markets in the Middle East. It’s open every day and is a fascinating place to wander around (despite the smell).
Riyadh’s most interesting attraction, the ruins of Dir’aiyah, lie 30km (20mi) north of the city centre. This was the kingdom’s first capital and is now the country’s most popular archaeological site. Dir’aiyah was founded in 1446, reached the height of its powers at the end of the 18th century, and was razed in 1818. The reconstructed ruins include palaces, mosques and the city wall.
Hyperbolically known as the Paris of Arabia, Jeddah is one of the few cities in the region to have built around, rather than over, its history. Although it’s definitely a modern metropolis, Jeddah (which is mid-way down the country’s Red Sea coast) is also the most interesting and friendly of Saudi Arabia’s big cities. Jeddah is centred on Al-Balad, the strip of buildings along its coast road and the old city directly behind them.
Jeddah has some great museums, including the Municipality Museum. Located in a 200-year-old restored traditional house built from Red Sea coral, the museum has interesting photos of the development of Jeddah, along with rooms done up in traditional style. The Museum of Abdel Raouf Hasan Khalil houses 10,000 items crammed into 4 mock-Arab, Disney-style buildings. The museum is a spectacularly badly organised mish-mash of kitsch exhibits, but there are a few real gems among the flotsam. The Jeddah Museum, the regional museum of archaeology and ethnography, covers the same turf as the Riyadh Museum.
Jeddah has one of the best souks (markets) in the kingdom, the spectacular Souk Al-Alawi, which winds its way through the old city. Although some sections of it have been paved over, and others fitted with bizarre green and white columns, it’s still a great place to spend hours strolling and browsing. Jeddah’s 3 reconstructed old city gates are also worth a look, as are the several good examples of traditional Jeddah architecture found around the North City Gate.
Most visitors to Saudi Arabia come solely to visit Mecca, just inland from Jeddah. Mecca is Islam’s holiest city, and all devout Muslims – wherever they live in the world – are supposed to make the pilgrimage (or hajj) here once in their life. This is where Mohammed was born in the 6th century AD, where he began preaching and where he returned for his final pilgrimage. Mecca and the holy sites in its immediate vicinity are off limits to non-Muslims. Apart from the obvious ideological arguments against breaking this rule, there are checkpoints along the roads to the city to stop non-Muslims from coming too close.
The centre of Mecca is the Grand Mosque and the sacred Zamzam well inside it. The Kaaba, which all Muslims face when they pray, is in the mosque’s central courtyard. According to tradition, the Kaaba was originally built by Adam, and later rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael, as a replica of God’s house in heaven.
In the mountains above Mecca, the summer capital of Taif is open to all. People come here for the weather (much cooler than Jeddah in the summer months), the scenery and the town’s relaxed atmosphere. Taif’s central mosque is a good example of simple, refined Islamic architecture. Shubra Palace is a beautifully restored traditional house which doubles as the city’s museum. It was originally built around the turn of the century, and has been used as a residence by a number of Saudi kings. For a real taste of old Taif, the Tailor’s Souk is a sandstone alleyway of ancient shops tucked between the town’s modern buildings.
Almost on the Yemeni border, in the south-west of the country, Najran is one of the most fascinating and least visited places in the kingdom. Set in a sprawling oasis, this area has been inhabited for about 4000 years, and was once a major stop on the frankincense route. Rumour has it that it’s now a major stop on the Saudi-Yemen smuggling route. Yemen’s cultural influence is stronger here than anywhere else in the country – you can see it in the architecture, and in the outgoing demeanour of the Najrani people. Najran has one big main road, and the bus station, hotels, post offices and places to eat are all along it or close by.
The Al-Aan Palace is one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in the Wadi Najran. The main tower is 5 storeys high and dominates the oasis from the summit of a rocky outcrop. You can’t go into the building because people live there, but there’s an excellent view from the carpark over the oasis. Najran’s fort has only been around since 1942 and was decommissioned in 1967 when relations with Yemen improved. Built as a self-sustaining complex, it has around 60 rooms, including livestock pens and its own mosque.
Najran has one of the kingdom’s newest and best museums, with displays on the formation of wadis and deserts, archaeological finds from the area, local crafts and tools, and photos of the area taken by Harry St John Philby, the famous diplomat, explorer and spy.