Pages of Saudi History: A Rare Collection of Documents Recall the Story of Riyadh’s Nasiriyah Gate
LONDON: A towering gate that seems to lead nowhere, situated somewhat incongruously on a triangular island created by the intersection of three main roads west of Riyadh, is now an architectural mystery even to many city residents.
Yet the Nasiriyah Gate bears mute testimony to the capital’s rapid growth from a small provincial town in the 1950s with a population of just over 125,000 to a city of global significance now home to more than 7 million inhabitants.
The remarkable story of the Nasiriyah Gate and the spectacular, now-forgotten palace complex to which it once served as the eastern entrance, emerges in one of a series of rare documents and books to be offered for sale at the International Fair. of the Abu Dhabi book at the end of May.
With little information about the short-lived Nasiriyah Palace, historians will find a wealth of detail in what is believed to be one of the few surviving original plans for the vast palace complex, which was once surrounded by a wall of pink color over 11 years. kilometers in length.
The palace was commissioned by King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud after his accession to the throne in 1953. The master plan for the complex, which is offered for sale for £17,500 ($21,544), is believed to date from around 1954.
“This is a remarkable and significant document, one of the few surviving original plans for the extraordinarily opulent royal palace built for the king by his ‘royal builder,’ Mohamed bin Laden,” said antiquarian bookseller Glenn Mitchell. at Peter Harrington, the London rare book dealer offering the document for sale.
Before ascending to the throne, as crown prince, Ibn Saud had already built a palace on the site, which at the time was barren land to the west of the city. According to one account, within its gates “an avenue of tamarisk passed through a garden of flowers, lawns and caged birds and a blue-tiled pool fed by wells tens of thousands of feet below ground “.
It was, Mitchell said, “an almost imaginary environment that seemed to be a mixture of modernity with something reminiscent of the Alf Laylah wa-Laylah, the Arabian Nights”.
Upon Saud’s succession in 1953, Nasiriyah’s first palace was deemed too modest a residence for the ruler of a rapidly growing kingdom on the world stage. It was replaced by the new complex.
The new complex, in turn, would be demolished within 10 years, sacrificed to Riyadh’s rapid expansion.
Of the Nasiriyah Palace demolished in 1967, according to Mitchell, only one of the main gates and a few fountains survive today.
“There is very little information about the resort,” he said. “This plan says a lot about the palace and the life of the royal family. It shows a large site containing many royal residences and a range of support and leisure functions.
The plan reveals the astonishing extent of the complex — a canton in its own right — including the king’s palace and other palaces for members of the royal family.
There were whole districts of villas for princes and princesses, schools for boys and girls, vast gardens, a hospital, mosques, a library, a museum, a power station, a water tank, a power station and housing for staff, including servants, janitors, teachers, shopkeepers, royal guards, laborers, engineers, nurses, caterers and a “Koran keeper”.
Today, another echo of the lost palace can be found in the name of the highway that passes through the abandoned gate – the King Saud Road – which begins here and stretches east for 2.5 kilometers through the modern city, passing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards Murabba Palace, the former home and court of Saud’s father, King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.
King Abdul Aziz lived in Murabba Palace from its completion in 1938 until his death in 1953. Built in the traditional Najdean architectural style, on farmland outside the walls of Riyadh’s Old City, the a relatively modest building, an important milestone on the nation’s journey, has been perfectly preserved.
By a curious coincidence, documents related to another piece of Riyadh’s architectural history, located a few hundred meters from the Nasiriyah Gate, are also on their way from Britain to be displayed and sold at the book fair. from Abu Dhabi.
For generations, the main point of entry into what would become Saudi Arabia in 1932 was the port of Jeddah, and it was where foreign diplomats and embassies were based for decades.
By the early 1970s, however, the advent of commercial air travel had rendered navigation almost superfluous. And so, in a short time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia and the diplomatic missions of other countries were packed up and transferred to Riyadh.
In 1975, land was acquired for the construction of a diplomatic quarter and the new headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This 10 square kilometer area was only a few hundred meters from the ancient Nasiriyah Palace complex.
Work began in 1980 on what Riyadh’s master plan described as “a suitable framework for international diplomacy” – a 120-plot model for Riyadh’s urban development and a boost to cross-cultural understanding.
The grand project took five years, with each country commissioning buildings for their embassies from leading architects.
When completed, alongside featured diplomatic missions, each vying to outdo the next in architectural excellence, the neighborhood included residences, mosques, schools, shops, and other recreational facilities.
The district also had 377 kilometers of water pipes, 490 kilometers of electrical and telecommunications cables, 50 kilometers of roads, vast gardens full of local plants and, well ahead of its time, a computer-controlled irrigation system. operating with recycled wastewater.
In 1989, an Aga Khan Award for Architecture was presented to the magnificent Foreign Office building in the heart of the district, and another to the entire Diplomatic Quarter, for its “realistic and imaginative understanding” of the desert environment from Riyadh.
For architecture students and historians interested in the development of Riyadh, the rare copy of the Diplomatic Quarter Master Plan, prepared by the German design consortium and now on sale for £2,250 ($2,767), is a treasure trove of information. .
The document, said Duncan McCoshan of Peter Harrington, “was intended to present the Governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz, with a summary of basic information, including existing arrangements in Jeddah, the development program, planning physical and an implementation plan, drawing on a host of documents, studies, plans and sector reports.
Only three other copies of the master plan are known, held at the University of Houston, the Universitatsbibliothek Kaiserslautern and the Deutsches Architekturmuseum.
The master plan includes a rare copy of the booklet “Riyadh: 11 entries for the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia”, a fascinating document which describes the international architectural competition which, in 1980, led to the selection of Danish architect. Henning Larsen’s award-winning design.
The 31st edition of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair will take place from May 23-29 at the Abu Dhabi International Exhibition Centre.