Dr. Geoffrey King taught at the King Saud University in Riyadh from 1980 till 1987. He is one of the foremost experts on the art and archaeology of Arabia. In this article for Oasis Magazine he decodes the meanings behind traditional Saudi architecture.
I first saw al-Riyâd and the surrounding villages in 1972 when the city was still small, quite unlike the sprawling mass of the capital as it is today. Then, it was still recognizably the old mud-brick traditional Najd settlement described by early European visitors, surrounded by the remains of once extensive palm-groves and vast gravel desert plains beyond. Parts of it were still recognisable as belonging to the city that had been taken by the late King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz early one morning in January, 1902.
The city walls of al-Riyâd that an earlier generation of travellers had fortunately recorded had been demolished during the 1960s but the disposition of the older part of the city centre was still preserved, its design dictated by the alignment of the streets, walls and spaces of the 19th century when al-Riyâd was the capital of much of central and eastern Arabia under the Second Sa‘ûdî state.
The first major expansion of al-Riyâd had taken place in the 1930s as large groups of people from across Najd had been attracted to the prosperity of the city, brought about by the peace that prevailed after the establishment of the unified Sa‘ûdî kingdom in 1932. There was a building boom in those years with a demand for fine mud-brick houses that made work for skilled masons, especially those from al-Qasîm. The district where these architects from Burayda and ‘Unayza settled in al-Riyâd was still noted many years later for the high quality of the fine carved plaster decorating the house interiors that the Qusmân had built for themselves. The government palace opposite the Friday Mosque in the centre of al-Riyâd was also built in traditional manner in 1917-18 by a master-mason from Burayda for Ibn Sa‘ûd and as late as the 1980s people still remembered the artistry brought to al-Riyâd by the builders from al-Qasîm.
Increasing population growth at al-Riyâd during the 1930s and 1940s led to the building of new suburbs southwards towards Manfûha and westwards among the palm-groves that lay towards the great Wâdî Hanîfa flood channel. Most of the buildings of these new suburbs continued to be constructed in traditional style using mud brick. This was as true of the houses of the population at large as it was of the elegant new Budi‘a guest palace built by King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz amidst the palm gardens on the banks of the Wâdî Hanîfa in 1936-37.
Within the line of the vanished walls of the old city, clusters of old mud brick houses still survived into the 1970s although most of them were pulled down during the following decade. They followed a coherent pre-modern urban plan, complete enough in its degree of survival to comprehend how the place had once worked socially. Narrow alleys off the side streets gave access to the residences of extended families and to the individual entrances to the houses of branches of the given family. These alley ways gave privacy and security to the extended family and bridging rooms over the street were built for the convenience of women, allowing them to pass in privacy unveiled from neighbouring houses belonging to same family.
The Murabba‘ palace, built by King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz in 1936-37 outside the old walls of a-Riyâd, marked the beginning of the northwards shift of the city that has continued to the present. The Murabba’ was the epitome of Najdî architecture and although much of it is now lost, its grandeur of conception is preserved in a number of photographs taken by visitors to the city over the following decade and in the stretches of its walls that are still preserved today.
In the streets where a diminishing stock of traditional houses survived in the early 1970s one could still conjure the image of the appearance and the tenor of the city in the time of Imâm Turkî b. ‘Abd Allâh and Imâm Faysal b. Turkî, the founders of the Second Sa‘ûdî state, the al-Riyâd that Ibn Sa‘ûd had taken in 1902 and which had grown to prosperity under his rule. This was especially the case where whole streets of traditional Najdî mud brick houses still stood intact behind Shari‘a al-Thumayrî and Shari‘a Suwaylam.
These narrow streets demonstrated how traditional housing in Najd’s harsh summer climate provided some degree of relief from the heat of summer. By their height they cast relatively cool shade onto the street below and the thickness of the mud walls of the houses gave some insulation from the summer heat and the winter cold. The design of these houses provided privacy to the families within and made no attempt at lavish external ornament. Rather, they had an egalitarian consistency of style, no less pleasing by its repetition that created a coherent urban context for daily life.
Insofar as the exteriors of the buildings were decorated at all, the “decoration” arose from a practical need to prevent erosion of the mud brick by breaking the flow of water in the rare but violent seasonal rain storms that are encountered in central Arabia. The effect of rain was the down side of building in mud-brick. It was this that led to the use of the hard plaster that covered the crenellations (shurâfâ’) of houses to water-proof them against erosive rain flow. The same was true of the plaster surroundings of windows. The trouble with such buildings was that the occasional intense rains of winter and spring could be extremely destructive. Years later I would recount to friends from Ha’il and al-Riyâd how no-one would come to class after heavy rain if they lived in the areas of the old town that were built of mud-brick, for the purely practical reason that the whole family along with their neighbours were busy shoring up their house, slapping mud back on walls eroded out by rain.
When it was decided to restore the palaces of the Âl Su‘ûd at al-Dir‘îyya it was quickly realised that coating the mud walls in modern polymer-like surfacing was ineffective and even destructive. The old traditional method of restoration using the same mud as the houses were built with, regularly re-applied, was then the only realistic way of maintaining such buildings. However, in recent years, a great deal of research has been done on developing materials based on mud that can be used to revive the architectural traditions of central Arabia, especially by al-Turâth Foundation and supported by HRH Amîr Sultân b. Salmân Âl Sa‘ûd. This work has shown a way to retrieve the indigenous building traditions of central Arabia.
The architecture of al-Riyâd was quite practical, designed to cope with the environment within terms of the limited traditional building materials available. The shurâfâ’, the stepped crenellations on the summits of walls, made water-proof by hard plastering, broke the impact of rain striking them as we have seen while a minimalist articulation of relief string-courses did the same across wall faces. None of this was intended as ornament although in effect it served as such: rather, it was an entirely practical response to the periodic rains that threatened mud-brick buildings’ survival in central Arabia.
A street off Shari‘a al-Thumayri making a T-junction with a neighbouring street presented a typical view in old al-Riyâd giving at the end of the street on to a solid ochre house wall articulated only by a string course of relief triangles to break the water flow, while the shurâfâ’ formed stepped silhouettes against a deep blue sky. The unpaved streets in the foreground were just as they had been when al-Riyâd was growing in its role as the country’s capital under the Second Sa‘ûdî state and under King ‘Abd al-‘Azîz.
This traditional style of Najdî building was rapidly overtaken during the 1950s and the 1960s, supplanted by new styles of palace and villas built in non-Najdî styles imported from abroad, largely inspired by architecture from the modernised Islamic and Arab world of the mid-20th C.
For all its enlargements beyond its old defensive walls over the previous decades, al-Riyâd in 1972 was still effectively contained within quite clear limits, bounded to the east by Wâdî Bathâ’ and the Kuwaitî sûq beyond it and the Wâdî’l-Hanîfa to the west. However, it was already clear that future expansions of the city would be northwards although one could not conceive of the degree of the transformations that were to be made in that direction by the 21st C. To the north at that time were modern and rather pleasing areas off Shari‘a al-Wazîr where the government ministries were concentrated along with the best hotels, the Zahrat al-Sharq and the al-Yamâma. To the north-east was the dormitory suburb of al-Malaz with the University and the race-track, and beyond, Shari‘a al-Matâr, leading to the airport. All of this was recently built. Beyond, there was nothing but empty desert stretching away to the Dahnâ’s sands, the Eastern Province and the distant sea.
Despite relentless modernization, one could still find distinguished traduitional buildings in the old city in the 1970s and in areas that seemed too run down to merit notice. One day a Yemeni shop-keeper who knew we were interested in old buildings invited a colleague and I up into the room above his store building that lay in a side street behind Shari‘a al-Thumairy. We climbed from a dark ground-floor room full of boxes of soft drinks, tea, rice and tinned food up a narrow staircase and emerged into an elegant upper room, once the formal majlis of a fine house. Its walls were coated with carved white plaster, sumptuously covered in geometric and floral reliefs, elegantly designed and left unpainted, as was generally the custom. In the corner of the room was a qahâwî, a hearth for preparing coffee for guests. Enough light entered through the wooden-shuttered windows to illuminate the interior without allowing in too much heat. Vents in the upper wall allowed out the smoke from the charcoal from the hearth. This sort of room was once found in most if not all of the more prosperous traditional houses of the towns scattered across Najd.
The architects and artisans who worked on these buildings remain anonymous, although there were men who were once well known for their skill. Talking to people in later years in other towns in central Arabia, I encountered the names of master craftsmen whose work was still remembered and respected, even if mud brick building techniques and the fine plaster and wood-working traditions had long since been abandoned.
Apart from the articulation of the mud plaster walls, the only exterior decoration of the traditional houses of al-Riyâd was provided by the heavy street doors of the local ithal wood (tamarisk), a wood that lasts well and is resistant to insects. These street doors to houses were simply decorated with circles, discs and geometrics burned with branding irons or painted. By contrast, the interior doors to formal reception rooms were far more ornately treated and were painted with oil-based colours, using floral and geometric designs.
The courtyard houses of this older mud brick al-Riyâd had much more to do with the architecture of a distant Arab past than the new al-Riyâd that was to be built in the following years. The palatial courtyards of the grander houses of old al-Riyâd were identical in plan and manner of use to a still older Arab tradition of Islamic building for they had parallels in form to the courtyard palaces of the Banî Umayya in Palestine, Jordan and Syria of the 8th C. CE, like Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Minyâ, Qastal and Qasr al-Harana and Qasr al-Hayr al Gharbî. Whether as common houses or as palaces, these courtyard house forms of al-Riyâd had more in common with the buildings of early Islamic times than the villas and high-rise blocks which marked the modernisation of al-Riyâd that was going on around them in the latter decades of the 20th C. CE. This traditional al-Riyâd embodied the forms and decoration that was the background of life in an older Arabia and with so much of the past lost, it is heartening that there is a renewed interest in the art and architecture of the past now in Sa‘ûdî Arabia and a growing efflorescence of art in the country more generally.
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