The new building for the National Museum of Antiquities
is the cornerstone of the King Abdul Aziz Historic Center
History unfolds in Riyadh's new King Abdul Aziz Historic Center. Amid lush gardens and fanciful waterways, an elaborate complex blends renovated historic buildings with a new museum, an archive and research center, a library and an auditorium, all in honor of the man who founded the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and led it into a new era of development and progress.
The complex, built at a cost of 182 million U.S. dollars, opened January 22 to commemorate the centennial of the recapture of Riyadh by Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud. This event is being celebrated in Saudi Arabia over the 12-month period ending January 2000.
There are two historic buildings in Riyadh that are most associated with King Abdul Aziz. The first is the Masmak fortress that King Abdul Aziz and his followers recaptured in 1902. This historic structure has been completely renovated and preserved for posterity. It is the core of the Qasr Al-Hokm complex that covers a large section of old Riyadh and includes renovated historic structures as well as modern buildings incorporating traditional architectural designs.
The second is the Murraba' Palace. Situated about half a mile from Masmak, the palace served as King Abdul Aziz's residence and the seat of government from 1938 until his death in 1953.
As Riyadh grew in leaps and bounds in the decades following King Abdul Aziz's passing, the palace was overshadowed by modern buildings that appeared to spring out of the ground in all directions. In the past few decades Riyadh has become a modern metropolis of superhighways, shopping centers, universities, hospitals, libraries and other social and economic institutions. But although Murraba' Palace was left behind in the rush to develop, it was certainly not forgotten and was kept intact in its original state.
In 1996, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz issued a Royal Decree for the creation of a historic center that would act as the focal point of the centennial celebrations. As the site around Masmak fortress had already been developed into a historic, government and commercial complex, attention focused on the palace as the core of the new King Abdul Aziz Historic Center.
Panoramic views of the King Abdul Aziz Historic Center
showing the restored Murraba' Palace and extensive parks
With only 32 months to design, build and open the center - including a new building for the National Museum of Antiquities - by the target opening date of January 22, 1999, city planners concentrated on an overall vision of the new complex. Two entities, the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh and the Higher Committee for Centennial Celebrations, agreed on key prerequisites.
"It was very important that it be designed as a complex that would be part of the city, not an island that would be fenced off and separate," explains Tariq A. Al-Faris, Director of the Project Management Unit of the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh.
Intensive work began to plan the entire complex, draw up a blueprint for the museum and solicit designs from building and landscape architects. In tandem, museum designers had to be selected and a plethora of antiquities experts began collecting, sorting and documenting artifacts related to the life of King Abdul Aziz.
"We knew from the beginning that this project would be a challenge," Al-Faris said. "Teamwork was crucial. Fortunately, we had a team of specialists who understood our goals and the importance of the deadline. With the concerted effort of all concerned and the support of the senior management and government authority, we were able to achieve our goals."
All the new buildings were built to be in harmony with the restored historic structures
By April 1997, construction was underway. Fifty engineers and some 4,000 laborers worked day and night on the project. The major components - including the Murraba' Palace, the King Abdul Aziz Archive, the old well, the mosque, the National Museum of Antiquities and the King Abdul Aziz Library and Auditorium - were completed and opened on target this past January 22.
Built in record time, the King Abdul Aziz Historic Center covers about 3 million square feet, an area more than three times larger than the entire city of Riyadh at the time King Abdul Aziz recaptured it in 1902.
Set between modern freeways in the city's center, the complex is a serene mix of tree-lined walkways, restored historic buildings, meandering streams, architecturally compatible new structures, a palm grove and spacious gardens.
The Riyadh Water Tower, located in the complex, is a famous landmark
The cornerstone of the complex, the National Museum of Antiquities, covers 312,000 square feet and is the Kingdom's largest museum. The structure, built of Riyadh limestone - with its sweeping, curving wall and Najd architectural design - blends with the historic buildings in the center. Opening the huge, two-story museum in time for the centennial presented an especially daunting challenge. A temporary Antiquities Center was built, where artifacts were painstakingly assembled and arranged in prototypes of the exhibits as they were designed. When the museum building was finished, the artifacts were moved to their new home.
In front of the museum's main entrance, a spring of water spills over man-sized basalt boulders transported hundreds of miles from northern Saudi Arabia.
A hallmark of modern museum design, the National Museum, built at a cost of 58.6 million dollars, offers eight galleries that tell the story of Saudi Arabia. Descriptions in English and Arabic accompany each case. Video and audio terminals elaborate on the topics.
Arranged chronologically, the first galleries highlight the geology and history of life in Arabia's ancient past. A gallery about the Arabian Peninsula describes the deserts, plant and animal life, the first inhabitants and their early tools, weapons and pottery. The emergence of the Arabian language and script is artistically and effectively depicted. Displays and interactive videos about the peninsula's ancient residents describe the Taimah, Riyadh's first settlers, and the Ubaid, Dilmun, Midia, Qedar and Edom settlements. Standing stones and other geologic props give the displays a realistic air.
Towering models of imposing Nabatean tomb facades represent Madain Saleh, lending an effective backdrop to exhibits and videos that tell the story of this ancient people who lived north of Madinah some two thousand years ago.
Another gallery features the Jahiliyah, or Age of Ignorance, which preceded Islam. Arabian poetry and the development of the language used for the Holy Qur'an are displayed. An enclosed pedestrian bridge spans a courtyard that links the building's two wings. The corridor symbolizes the Hijra and opens up into the gallery introducing the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.
Beautiful replicas of the interiors of the Holy Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah are the focal points of the hall dedicated to the Hajj and the Two Holy Mosques. Exhibits recount the history of the mosques through Islamic periods, and a large model of the Plain of Arafat depicts the pilgrimage, holy sites and roads leading to Makkah.
On the second floor, realistic replicas from the first Saudi state depict the Omar Mosque in Al-Jouf, an ancient kitchen from Al-Hawra city and remnants left by the Ottomans in Tabuk and Al-Hasa. A reproduction of a Najdi house near Dariyah and a Bedouin tent - complete with colorful carpets, camel saddles, leather water bags, cooking utensils and the ubiquitous dallah (Arabic coffee pot) - portray the lifestyle of village dwellers and Bedouin.
The story of Saudi Arabia climaxes in the imposing 40-foot-high gallery flanked by an adobe citadel modeled after the towers of Masmak fortress. The gallery encloses a rotunda with a 120-seat theater where visitors may watch either English or Arabic versions of a 30-minute documentary about King Abdul Aziz.
The film describes his exile to Kuwait, his victorious return to Riyadh a century ago and the subsequent unification of Saudi Arabia. Holograms, flashing lights, smokescreens and surround sound punctuate the historic photos that come to life as the story unfolds. Many scenes include shots of the Murraba' Palace and other renovated sites in and near the Historic Center.
Some of King Abdul Aziz's cars are on display
Adjacent to the rotunda, a village street winds through buildings that replicate the unique architecture of houses in the Kingdom's various regions. The final gallery traces the discovery of oil, the development of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, and Saudi Arabia's rapid development.
Beyond the view of visitors, a two-story structure on the north end of the museum houses the Antiquities and Museum Agency. This nearly 10,000-square-foot section provides offices for administrative and research staff as well as rooms for rehabilitating and documenting artifacts.
Visitors can walk underneath a waterfall
After viewing the displays and exhibits, visitors can enjoy the sprawling five-acre park that extends from north to south across the entire length of the Historic Center. Stone walkways parallel a meandering stream lined with colorful tiles, flowerbeds and trees. To the north, the stream winds beneath a waterfall of concrete pillars and feeds into a pool complete with a pontoon attached to a rope pulley. The water for these and other features is fed by the restored adobe well, which was built in the 1930s to supply water to the Murraba' Palace.
Beyond the stream and west of the museum, visitors may continue on their educational, historic sojourn and enter the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research, the Hall of Archives and the Murraba' Palace. The 75,000- square-foot Hall of Archives is dedicated to the research and preservation of the Kingdom's history, geography, arts, ideology and architecture. It houses administration offices, a library, a section where women can conduct research and offices for the staff of Al-Darah Magazine.
There are extensive green areas in the complex
The Hall of Archives commemorates King Abdul Aziz as the founder and spiritual leader of the nation. Display cases feature many of his personal belongings, including his robes, eyeglasses, copy of the Holy Qur'an, watches, rings, sword and other items he used in daily life.
Downstairs, visitors can see vintage automobiles, including a Rolls Royce limousine given to the king by then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The classic cars are also visible to passersby on a path that faces floor-to-ceiling windows.
From the Archives visitors may continue via an enclosed, second-floor walkway to the Murraba' Palace - the heart of the King Abdul Aziz Historic Center.
Although the palace had been refurbished and added onto several times over the years, most of the compound's walls had disintegrated by 1953. Traditional methods were used to make new bricks of mud, straw and water, dry them in the sun, and restore the palace, mosque, treasury building and other historic sites that are part of the compound.
The exterior of the sand-colored, mud-brick palace, with its distinctive Najd towers and row of white crenellations etching the rooftop, looks much as it did when King Abdul Aziz lived here. In spacious rooms with high ceilings, rough- hewn timbers and beams - and surrounded by the interior's cool, thick, white-washed walls - the King met with ordinary Saudi citizens and world leaders.
Square towers anchor the walls of the compound. Huge, wooden double- doors mark the entrance to the two-story Murraba' Palace. On the first floor, a reception room with a fireplace for making coffee and tea, plus several storerooms, offices and quarters for security guards, encircle a center courtyard.
The King's Royal Office and more formal rooms, consisting of majlis and public waiting rooms, occupy the second floor. Verses from the Holy Qur'an adorn several archways. Newly upholstered, gilded chairs and oriental carpets, similar to those used in Abdul Aziz's time, decorate the rooms. The lift, the first to be installed in the Kingdom, was added in the 1940s. It remains in working condition today.
Adjacent to the palace and facing the avenue that dissects the Historic Center is the King Abdul Aziz Mosque. Refurbished to accommodate 4,200 worshippers, the mosque sits in an idyllic spot next to the large square across from the museum. An enclosed pedestrian bridge originally connected the mosque to the King's residential palace.
Across the central avenue from the old and new buildings, the southern end of the historic center features the Centennial Palm Grove, a vast park, the Al-Hamra Palace, the King Abdul Aziz Library, an auditorium and the Riyadh Water Tower.
Elevated about four feet above ground on a square rimmed with stone steps, the signature palm oasis of 100 trees symbolizes the century that has passed since King Abdul Aziz recaptured Riyadh. Paved walkways crisscross the palm grove and colorful flowerbeds encircle each tree.
An L-shaped, landscaped park complete with an artificial wadi (dry river bed) covers the southwest corner of the complex and extends to the Al-Hamra palace. Also known as the "Pink Palace", the white and salmon-colored adobe structure was built by Abdul Aziz's son and successor, King Saud Ibn Abdul Aziz, in 1953. King Saud lived there until 1956, when he moved into a newer palace built in what was then a fashionable suburb of Riyadh. Over the years, the Al-Hamra has been used to house government offices.
In the southern part of the historic center, the new King Abdul Aziz Library and an auditorium have been built. The 105,000-square-foot library includes a children's section in the basement and separate research sections, periodicals rooms and reading rooms for women.
Located in a circular building opposite the library is the 600-seat auditorium, planned to be used to host symposiums and conferences.
One of the city's most prominent landmarks, the Riyadh Water Tower, rises at the southeast corner of the historic center and marks its main entrance on King Faisal Street. Built in 1970, the water tower has been repainted in blue and gold stripes. A fully equipped restaurant is located in the top of the tower, encircled with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony to take full advantage of the splendid views.
From this vantage point, modern Riyadh dominates the scene for miles in every direction. The historic center below, like the restored Masmal fortress nearby, exudes architectural and historic charm.
It's clear that city planners achieved their goal to preserve the Kingdom's heritavge for generations of Saudis to come. Against the backdrop of modern buildings and highways, the complex signifies a bridge from the old to the new.