I just spent two lively days in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, with my family. After traveling overland through the desert from al-Khobar on the Gulf coast, we reached our hotel at around 1 p.m. We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel on Al Imam Faisal Ibn Turki Ibn Abdullah road, mainly because it was within walking distance of two places we wanted to see: Masmak Fort and the National Museum (also known as the King Abdul Aziz Museum). We also visited the Al-Faisaliah Tower, designed by British architect Norman Foster, and a couple of shopping malls, for which Riyadh is famous. The National Museum was a fabulous place and included exhibits on civilizations in Arabia and early Islamic history that I really enjoyed, but the place of most interest to me was Masmak Fort, one of the most important historic sites in Saudi Arabia.
After eating lunch at the hotel we took a short rest in our room and then we headed out into the bustle of the nearby streets and made our way to Masmak Fort. We reached the fort by walking west along Al Imam Faisal Ibn Turki Ibn Abdullah road until we reached Al Suwailim street. We turned left onto this street and walked past all the shops selling toys and household goods. I asked a couple of stately gents from Pakistan the direction to Masmak Fort to make sure we were going the right way, which fortunately we were. After reaching the end of the street, we crossed Imam Turki Ibn Abdullah Ibn Muhammad road, which seemed to be quite a major roadway, and arrived at a pedestrian area next to Souq Dirah, a traditional market. This was a pleasant area, with kids playing and families enjoying the early evening. A group of young boys were even enjoying a game of cricket. After passing the souq we turned left and walked past the impressive Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, built in a modern interpretation of traditional Nejd architecture, until we reached Al Safa Square. Straight ahead of us we spotted the high walls of Masmak Fort.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached the fort; maybe about 30 minutes before the muezzin at the mosque called worshippers to the evening prayer. So the afternoon light had softened and there was a slight breeze that made the fronds of the palm trees sway gently. In front of the main entrance to the fort there was a small square with clumps of rocks and people scattered about. In the center, close to the fort, there was one of the tallest flag poles I think I’d ever seen, with a huge Saudi flag at the top. We walked over to the entrance but the security guards were already closing the door for the prayer time.
After the prayers, we returned and the main entrance door was open – the door that famously retains the buried tip of a spear that was thrown during a nighttime raid by the forces of Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, who founded the modern country of Saudi Arabia. We stepped inside and spent a couple of hours wandering around the fort, which had been well preserved, with displays of weapons, traditional Arabian clothes, and other artifacts. The fort has been turned into a well presented museum that includes documentary films, photographs and text panels that tell the story of the founding of Saudi Arabia and the fort’s role in that history.
The fort was originally part of a large palace when it was built in 1865 during the time of Imam Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud, and is located in the Ad-Dirah district of Riyadh. The word “Masmak” means “strong, thick and fortified,” and its sturdy appearance certainly matches its name. King Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud recovered the fort in 1902 as part of his recapture of Riyadh from Al Rashid, the ruler of Riyadh at that time. This was one of the key events that eventually led to the unification of the country under one king. The fort was extensively renovated in the early 1980s and it opened as a museum in 1995. A Saudi government website tells the story of Masmak Fort and the founding of Saudi Arabia in some detail here.
After looking around the fort it was quite late in the evening and we retraced our steps through the streets back to our hotel. We passed by the Grand Mosque again and looked up at the exceptionally tall minaret, constructed from bricks in a rather striking design, and saw the moon crescent shining in the clear night sky. The evening was cool and there was a pleasant breeze, which was perfect for walking through the streets.