Look at the reverse side of an old SR200 note and you will see a line drawing of one of the most important buildings in the history of Sa’udi Arabia.
Over a century ago, Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al Sa’ud led a group of 40 men on an early morning attack of the Musmak Fortress at the heart of the settlement of Riyadh. In fierce hand to hand combat, Abdul Aziz and his followers managed to enter the fortress and take possession of this strategic structure, and by noon of that day – Shawwal 5, 1319 (January 15, 1902) – he had received the allegiance of the people of Riyadh.
Originally built around 1865 during the reign of Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Rasheed, the Al-Musmak – which can be translated as ‘thick, high and fortified’ – is regarded as the birthplace of modern Sa’udi Arabia, albeit that the kingdom wasn’t established until 1932. (Indeed, the centennial celebrations, also celebrated on the SR200 note, marked the storming of Al Musmak.) Completely restored under the Qasr Al Hokm project, which began in 1976, it is a wonderful example of mud and brick desert architecture, with crenellated towers, triangular windows and traditionally decorated doors and ceilings.
After its capture, Abdul Aziz lived here until moving to the Murabba Palace in 1938. Later, it was used as a depot until it was decided to convert the fort into a heritage landmark, whence it was extensively renovated in the 1980s and turned into a museum that focuses on the history of the country. Now it houses collections of traditional dress and crafts, a traditional diwan or sitting room with an open courtyard and a working well, with a multitude of exhibits in both Arabic and English – liberally interspersed with photographs and a video which well illustrate the history of the country.
As you approach Al Musmak, look at the construction of the walls – especially at their base – to see their traditional mud and straw construction. These walls are 45cm (18") thick and the watchtowers at each corner are 18m (45ft) high with a thickness of over a metre.
You enter the fort on the Western side through an imposing wooden gate, made of palm and tamarisk trunks, some 10 cm (4") thick, at the centre of which is the postern gate stormed in 1902. Look closely and you will easily see the metal tip of the javelin thrown by Abdullah bin Jaluwi at governor Ajlan, but which instead buried itself deep into the gate. So deep was it buried, in fact, that it could not be subsequently removed without breaking off the spearhead and leaving it embedded there – where it has remained to this day.
To the left of the gate is a wide room formerly used as the mosque, containing many pillars and with phrases from the Holy Qur’an carved into the walls. There are several traditional Najdi doors opening from the courtyard into rooms used for storage and as guards’ quarters.
On the north-eastern side, water can still be drawn by bucket from a well. There are stairs on the eastern wall leading to the first floor and the roofs.
There are three residential units – the first being used as apartments for the ruler, the second as a treasury and the third was used for guests.
The Al Musmak is open from 8am till midday and from 4pm until 9pm Saturday to Wednesday, and from 9am until midday on Thursdays.
However, it is open for men only on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays; and families only on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There is no entrance charge.
Strangely enough, considering its importance to the history of Sa’udi Arabia, the Musmak Fortress is not very well signposted, nor does it feature prominently on maps of the city.
To reach it, you drive south down the King Fahd Highway, past the Interior Ministry building. About 2 kms further on, as you go through an underpass, take the second exit (signposted in Arabic only, to Qasr al Hokm) and then turn left at the traffic lights.
This brings you to the area known as Dirrah. Go straight through the traffic lights, past the National Mosque and Justice Palace on your right, and Al Musmak will suddenly appear on your right hand side. There is plenty of parking outside the fort (SR2) and also on the other side of the road (free!).
Al Musmak entrance:
24o 37.9’ N, 46o 42.7’ E
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