The wonder that is Salwa Palace, the original home of the Al-Saud royal family

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A historic door in Ad Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Shutterstock)
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Salwa Palace in the city of Ad Diriyah, in the central Najd region of Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
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A letter written by the third ruling imam of the first Saudi state to the governor of Damascus. (Supplied)
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A repilca of the famous Al-Ajrab sword. (Supplied)
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The Arabian Horse Museum showcases the importance of horses during that time. (Supplied)
Updated 18 May 2019
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The wonder that is Salwa Palace, the original home of the Al-Saud royal family

  • Besides the restored palace, four museums are due to open to the public in Ad Diriyah in 2020

RIYADH: As the world marks International Museum Day on Saturday, Saudi Arabia is getting one of its national treasures in Ad Diriyah ready for opening to the public at the beginning of 2020.
Arab News obtained a sneak peek at the historical gem, Salwa Palace — the original home of the Al-Saud royal family — located northwest of the capital Riyadh. Four museums will open their doors to the public alongside the newly restored Salwa Palace: Diriyah Museum, the Military Museum, the Arabian Horse Museum and the Saudi Daily Life Museum.
Ad Diriyah already has a number of open-air and indoor museums spread across the UNESCO World Heritage Site At-Turaif, plus a plan to build one of the world’s largest Islamic museums in the neighboring Al-Bujairi district.
The Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) is striving to turn Ad Diriyah into one of the region’s foremost destinations for historical and cultural knowledge-sharing activities.
“Ad Diriyah has a special place in the heart of all Saudis. The DGDA is working to transform Ad Diriyah into a globally renowned gathering place and a must-visit destination in the heart of the Kingdom,” DGDA CEO Jerry Inzerillo told Arab News.
“We’re committed to developing Diriyah Gate, starting with an extensive beautification project of the areas surrounding Ad Diriyah and At-Turaif, and creating spaces for families and communities to enjoy,” he said.
“This work has already begun, with thousands of square meters of green surfaces added to Ad Diriyah.”
The tour began at Salwa Palace. Extending over an area of at least 5,000 square meters, Salwa, which means solace or comfort in Arabic, is the largest single structure in Ad Diriyah, a city in Saudi Arabia’s central Najd region.
The palace consists of seven architectural units built in successive stages, starting from the time of Prince Muhammad bin Saud bin Muqrin, the founder of the first Saudi state in 1744.
The area abounds in palaces and mud houses of historical and cultural significance. The most prominent of them is Salwa Palace, where the affairs of the first Saudi state were conducted.
Among the other structures are Imam Mohammed bin Saud Mosque, Saad bin Saud Palace, Nasser bin Saud Palace, and a traditional hospitality palace. The neighborhood is enclosed by a large wall and towers that once served to protect the city.
Salwa Palace was built in distinctive Najdi architectural style. The walls have decorative triangular windows designed to recirculate air and bring natural light into the rooms. The materials used for construction were mud bricks, straw and logs of wood. The clay from which the bricks were made was extracted from underground soil layers.
At-Turaif and Al-Bujairi are connected to each other via the Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab Bridge, a 75-meter-long curved structure built on the banks of Wadi Hanifa.
The bridge enables visitors to go directly from the premises of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab Foundation in Al-Bujairi to the reception center on Qu’a Al-Share’a street in At-Turaif, located next to Salwa Palace.
The palace housed administrative offices, councils of the imams of the first Saudi state, and ministers’ headquarters, which were connected to their stables.
We walked through the administrative department, which once teemed with officials and clerks dealing with important government matters.
Wood and thatch palm were chosen as the main building materials due to their strength and resistance to cracking. The wood was used in the construction of ceilings, doors and windows. Palm fronds were placed on top of the logs, preventing water from seeping into the mud, which would have caused the ceiling to weaken and ultimately collapse.
We entered a circular room called Al-Majles to watch a visual presentation featuring laser lighting. The presentation aims to enhance the visitor experience while sticking to UNESCO’s guidelines for preservation.
The laser show in each room tries to take visitors way back in time. In one room, the presentation depicted consultations with the imam on state affairs, as might have happened during the heyday of the first Saudi state.
Next to Al-Majles is an ante-room called Al-Mukhtasar, where only private issues were addressed.
Only the imam and one of his employees or councillors were permitted to enter this room to discuss and resolve an issue.
The concept of a private room has not faded with the passage of time, with an Al-Mukhtasar room still a feature of many government offices.
Salwa Palace also housed the first Saudi state’s treasury, which was responsible for the distribution of salaries and the collection of zakat.
As part of the restoration, the winding streets and walkways around the area’s open spaces have been paved in a style that emphasizes its historical importance.
During our tour, we stopped at the Salwa private school where members of the royal family used to take lessons in Islamic subjects, mathematics and the Holy Qur’an.
The tour guides of At-Turaif are Saudi men and women who have undergone months-long training to make them well versed in local history and familiar with every nook and cranny of the place.
They were ready with answers to every question we threw at them, and enlightened us with fascinating nuggets of history.
One of the guides recounted the story of the destruction of Ad Diriyah by an invading Ottoman force led by Ibrahim Pasha in 1818.
“It took him six months to destroy the place and the people in it, and make sure that no one survived,” she said, recalling the final tragic moments of the first Saudi state.
As our tour came to an end, we were directed toward an outdoor seating area with a clear view of Salwa Palace.
As if we were inside a movie theater, slowly the outer wall of the palace turned into a huge screen. On it was projected a short film that narrated the history of the monarchy from the establishment of the first Saudi state to the present time.
What the world will witness in 2020 in Ad Diriyah is the realization of an ambitious Vision 2030 dream, one that celebrates the triumphs and achievements of Saudi Arabia’s past while instilling in the present generation faith and confidence in the future.


Meet Abdulrahman Eid: The Syrian artist inspired by Hijazi heritage

Updated 24 May 2019
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Meet Abdulrahman Eid: The Syrian artist inspired by Hijazi heritage

  • ‘Saudi Arabia is becoming a fertile environment for young artists to develop’

JEDDAH: The unique heritage of the historic Jeddah area and the surrounding Hijaz region has long proved fascinating for visitors. That was certainly true for Abdulrahman Eid, a Syrian artist who has lived in the Kingdom for 18 years, and whose work is inspired by Hijazi culture and artistic heritage.

Eid was born in Damascus in 1997. Before moving to Saudi Arabia, he helped restore and renovate historic buildings and works of art, including antiques, manuscripts, and paintings.

He currently works as a jewelry designer in Jeddah, and has plans to share his knowledge with the public through courses and workshops, as he believes jewelry design could and should be much more popular in the Middle East.

Eid first came to Saudi Arabia to work as the director of an exhibition of Eastern and Antarctic at. He said he exhibited some of the work he had produced at Janadriyah’s cultural festival in 2002 and 2003. But between 2003 and 2018, he took a break from making his own artwork.

However, he is now back with a vengeance. His latest creation —  a diorama that portrays life in Jeddah in the 1950s, consists of more than 1,700 pieces, which Eid hopes will get him into the record books. His decision to document life in old Jeddah was partly driven, he says, by nostalgia for his homeland, and partly by his wish to acknowledge his appreciation of art.

Project

The project, which Eid hopes to finish and present to the public within the next two weeks, has taken the artist more than three years of hard work so far, much of which was spent researching.

“I collected many books and old photographs of various Orientalists and studied how they were documenting the country in the 30s, 40s, and 50s,” he said. Eid found numerous sources through which he could study various historic houses and neighborhoods of old Jeddah, including —  of course —  walking the streets himself. He cites Noor Wali House, Al-Batarji, Beit Nasif, Al-Matbouli and others as inspirations. However, none of the houses in his artwork are named, or presented as exact replicas of existing buildings. 

“Some houses and neighborhoods with important historic value do not exist anymore, and I do not want to diminish any of their value. I collected various elements from different houses and made it into one unnamed neighborhood that imitates the reality of the past,” he said.

Eid’s diorama is 320 cm long, 130 cm high and 45 cm wide. It is full of houses, antique cars and shops — a carpet shop, a silver shop, a copper shop, and a shop for household items, such as pottery.

The intricate miniature pieces in the shops include handmade carpets, hanging lamps, lanterns, old swords and other weapons, old-fashioned household appliances, mirrors, antiques, gifts, and handicrafts of the kind sold to pilgrims. “I tried to integrate all the elements that were there in Hijaz in the past,” he said. “It is more of a documentary artwork.” Staying faithful to his source material, Eid even used precious stones and metals to create the miniature merchandise.

Eid describes his project as “a collection of around 10 types of art, including miniature, diorama, painting, sculpture, formative art, and jewelry design.”

His buildings incorporate the many distinctive decorative styles of traditional Hijazi architecture: panelings, moldings, door shapes, and Rawashin — the carved latticed windows typical of the area. “It contains a huge amount of art that interested the people of the country at that time,” he said of his ambitious project.

Eid said he has benefitted from the knowledge of many people who are familiar with historical Jeddah — including intellectuals, architects, civil engineers and local dignitaries.

“Many people have visited me in my studio and seen the work,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of amendments based on their recommendations. I took their comments into account and restructured the work several times over the past year until I finally reached the version that most closely embodies the reality.”

Eid said the fine and precise nature, and the astonishing variety, of Hijazi arts presented a serious challenge —  one that he was keen to embrace. “I found a unique, unparalleled precision and accuracy in Hijazi artistic heritage,” he said. “It is harmoniously composed of rich elements that I have not found in any other regions of the Kingdom.”

Still, he did sometimes worry that he had taken on too big a task. “Sometimes I felt I would not finish it for years,” he said.

Hijazi culture

Hijazi culture, Eid pointed out, is “cross-cultural.” Jeddah has been the main port for pilgrims for hundreds of years, and as a result, the city and surrounding areas have gained a unique character —  possessing the spirit of numerous other cities from both East and West. 

Eid claimed that anyone visiting Jeddah’s historic areas would likely see something of their own country there. “I saw something of Syria,” he said.

Over the last fortnight or so, photographs of Eid’s project have been widely shared on social media —  with some people mistakenly claiming that the images were off work based on the old cities in Damascus or Cairo.

“I was pleased with what happened,” Eid said. “I received a lot of encouragement and support.”

The Syrian artist said he has had many similar experiences with Damascene architecture when he was working in his homeland. “I have to say, though, that this experience has been more enjoyable, with its challenges, fine details, and richness,” he added. 

Eid said he believes recent years have seen an evolving renaissance in the arts in Saudi Arabia, marked by growing interest from the government and the public in the Kingdom’s heritage and its cultural value. 

“Saudi Arabia is becoming a fertile environment for young artists to develop,” he said. “The number of galleries has multiplied, and a real movement has begun. I believe this movement in Saudi Arabia will grant the youth diverse opportunities and will raise the standards and the level of competition between them.” Such competition is important to improve artists’ abilities and the quality of art works delivered to the public, he added.

While Eid views the current condition as very healthy, he pointed out that there are many young artists who need financial support if they are really going to fulfill their potential, and that “those who have the financial support still need guidance.”

“Regardless of everything,” he concluded. “I am sure the future is promising.”