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Diriyah: A glimpse into a bygone era

RIYADH: Old Diriyah, a town on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, boasts of a great historic past. So when the day is clear and the skies are spotlessly blue, it draws Saudi and expatriate visitors alike, particularly on weekends.
“My family and friends and I like the countryside. I keep tender memories of the place,” said a foreign diplomat. “Old date trees whose dark green leaves echo a distant past, farms planted to different fruit trees and vegetables, and old buildings which are the mute witnesses to history.
But as renovations in the area progressed, he noted, many of the things that drew weekend visitors are now gone.
“Of course, the renovation is welcome. The new buildings are part and parcel of modern times. Besides, they’re also made of mud-bricks and quite resemble the historic buildings,” added Miriam D. Rontale, a teacher at a local school who majored in history.
Diriyah was the original home of the Saudi royal family and served as the capital city of the first Saudi dynasty from 1744 to 1818.
“My wife and I used to visit Diriyah to have a closer look at the origins of modern Riyadh and I felt I imbibed, as it were, the old Saudi culture,” said Maynard R. Pesig, an engineer at a lighting company in Riyadh.
He noted, however, that many of the old buildings “were gone and the remaining few had been padlocked.”
“Many of the old buildings have been replaced with new and modern structures. The government could have renovated more of them,” he said.
Thamer Al-Hawas, a Saudi from Riyadh, said that he and his family used to visit Old Diriyah because of its cultural significance.
Being a Saudi, he said he wanted to know more of “the past, which is very faraway now but I’m proud of it and I still come here with my family.”
“The restoration of the place is welcome, although I am sad that many of the old buildings and palaces are gone,” he said as he sauntered slowly down the concrete street, which used to be a dirt road.
Al-Hawas said that some of the restored buildings included the Salwa Palace, the residence and first home of the Al-Saud emirs and imams during the first Saudi State. It was considered the largest building in the area, rising four stories high. It was composed of five main parts that had been built at different consecutive periods of time.
“It is believed to have been finished by Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Muhammad bin Saud, who was imam from 1803 to 1814. The Saad bin Saud Palace was one of the largest in the city. It was famous for its courtyard, which used to be a stable. It has been completely restored and is several stories high,” he said.
The Guest House and Al-Turaif Bath are traditional buildings, consisting of a number of courtyards surrounded by rooms.
Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulwahab used to give lessons about his reformed movement of Islam at the Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque. It became a center for religious education.
“Students from various parts of the Arabian peninsula used to travel to the Kingdom and visit it,” Al-Hawas added.
Residents of Riyadh and other parts of the Kingdom still visit Diriyah. “While visitors merely drive along the road to have a glimpse of the place, others pull over to have a closer look at Diriyah’s surroundings,” said Jannette Arenque, a teacher at an international school.
“In doing so, we try to summon up the past to see in the mind’s eye what it was like back then,” she added, noting the ruins of mud-brick structures which lay on either side of the valley.