{short description of image} Saudi Arabia Celebrates the Centennial of a Historic Event

Renovated Masmak fortess in Riyadh

The interior of the renovated Masmak fortress in Riyadh

On a moonless night one hundred years ago, according to the Islamic lunar calendar, a unique individual led a group of some 40 men on a daring mission that would have a profound impact on the future course of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. With his followers, Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud planned to attack a heavily fortified garrison in Riyadh and reclaim the patrimony of his forebears. Facing great odds, he chose to undertake the mission under cover of darkness, seeking to surprise the large Ibn Rashid force armed with Turkish cannons that controlled the town. Discovery would lead to sure defeat and capture to certain death.

The original gate of the fortress

The original gate of the fortress

Aware of the monumental task before him, Abdul Aziz spent most of the predawn hours in prayer and meditation after scaling the town walls. With the coming of light, he led his small force in a surprise assault on the Masmak Fortress at the heart of the settlement as the Rashidi governor was entering the main gate. In fierce hand-to-hand fighting, Abdul Aziz and his followers managed to enter the fortress and take possession of the strategic structure. By noon of Shawwal 5, 1319 of the Hijrah calendar, corresponding to January 16, 1902, he had received the allegiance of the people of Riyadh and was leading them in prayer.

The fortress is located in the renovated historic section of Riyadh

The fortress is located in the renovated historic section of Riyadh

Had Abdul Aziz's bold undertaking failed, Hail, Riyadh and a large segment of the central part of the peninsula would have remained under the unpopular rule of Al-Rashid, and the land that would later become Saudi Arabia would have remained fragmented, controlled by warring tribes and local rulers. Instead, the taking of Masmak turned out to be a momentous event, one that would completely alter the course of the peninsula's history. Although at the time it did not appear significant - indeed the Rashidi ruler in Hail largely dismissed its importance - the taking of Masmak and, with it, Riyadh, provided Abdul Aziz a base from which to implement his bold vision for the future.

Parts of the original walls that once surrounded Riyadh

Parts of the original walls that once surrounded Riyadh

The events leading up to Abdul Aziz's recapture of Riyadh were set in motion long before that moonless night a century ago, and in fact long before he was born. In 1744, Abdul Aziz's ancestor Emir Muhammad Ibn Saud, the ruler of Dariyah and the central Najd region of the peninsula, joined forces with Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a Muslim scholar and reformer, to restore the pure teachings of Islam to the Muslim community.

Riyadh

Riyadh

Within 40 years of the formation of that fateful alliance, the First Saudi State attracted the support of numerous tribes by the purity of Islam it upheld and the simplicity of its ruling style and extended its control over the entire Najd, the central plateau of the peninsula. By the early years of the 19th century, it ruled over most of the peninsula, including the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Alarmed by the growing popularity of Saudi rule, the Ottoman Empire sent a large and well-equipped force out of Egypt in 1818, which brought devastation to Najd and Dariyah.

Some of the old buildings in the city center are earmarked for renovation

Some of the old buildings in the city center are earmarked for renovation

But shortly after the invader's departure, the Saudi leaders transferred their capital to nearby Riyadh and once again extended their rule throughout the Najd. The Second Saudi State brought with it a period of peace and prosperity, as well as flourishing trade and agriculture. The calm was once again shattered by outside forces. By the 1870s, the Al-Rashid family of Hail, with Ottoman financial and material support, launched a major effort to overthrow Saudi rule. In 1891, the Saudi ruler Abdul Rahman Ibn Faisal was forced to abandon his struggle in the face of great odds.

The interior of the Masmak Fortress (water well)

The interior of the Masmak Fortress (water well)

After a short stay in Bahrain, Abdul Rahman and his followers, including his young son Abdul Aziz, spent some time with the Al-Murrah tribesmen who lived in the Rub Al-Khali, the world's largest sand desert occupying a quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Then they travelled to Kuwait at the invitation of Shaikh Mubarak Al-Sabah.

It was from Kuwait that with his father's permission and blessing Abdul Aziz set out on his attempt to recapture Riyadh, the original seat of his family's rule. Relying on the skills he had learned from the bedouin, Abdul Aziz and his warriors went deep into the desert, avoiding human contact to ensure the secrecy of their mission. They spent the holy month of Ramadan in fasting and prayer in the remote oasis of Jabrin. At the conclusion of the holy month, they set out in the direction of Riyadh, reaching the town in the evening of January 15.

The interior of the Masmak Fortress

The interior of the Masmak Fortress

In retrospect, the recapture of Riyadh was not the end of Abdul Aziz's bold adventure, but merely the start of a historic quest that would absorb all his energies for the next half century. Using Riyadh as a base, Abdul Aziz would work tirelessly for the next 30 years, acting as both statesman and warrior and using his extensive skills to persuade, mediate and encourage the fractious tribes to set aside their differences and unite. In 1932 he formed the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Adhering to the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the sunnah (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), the pillar on which Saudi rule has rested for more than 250 years, King Abdul Aziz gave the nation the gifts of justice and stability, elements vital to its spectacular future growth and development.

The historic Qasr Al-Hokm district surrounding the Masmak fortress

The historic Qasr Al-Hokm district surrounding the Masmak fortress

Beginning on Shawwal 5, 1419, corresponding to January 22, 1999, the people of Saudi Arabia will be celebrating the centennial of King Abdul Aziz's recapture of the Masmak Fortress and Riyadh with a year-long calendar of events. The 150-year-old fortress, the capital's oldest intact structure, has been completely renovated, preserving as much of the original as possible, including the gate in which is embedded the tip of a spearhead, a reminder of the momentous struggle that took place there a century ago.

A renovated watchtower

A renovated watchtower

Now housing a museum, the fortress is the heart of a renovated part of old Riyadh that by the 1970s was bordering on ruin. Sections of the original wall that once encircled the town have been identified and rebuilt and two of its gates have been restored.

The fortress is now surrounded by the Qasr Al-Hokm, a collection of modern buildings based on the traditional architectural designs of the Najd. It contains offices of the Riyadh Governorate and the Riyadh Municipality, as well as the Imam Turki Ibn Abdullah Mosque - built on the site of another mosque of the same name - the courthouse, commercial and office buildings, souqs (markets), vast squares and a park.

The Imam Turki Ibn Abdullah Mosque in locted in Qsr Al-hokm district in Riyadh

The Imam Turki Ibn Abdullah Mosque in locted in Qsr Al-hokm district in Riyadh

King Abdul Aziz's old Murraba' Palace has been renovated as part of the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center in Riyadh. The complex, built at a cost of 680 million Saudi riyals (181.33 million U.S. dollars), includes a national museum featuring a detailed history of the Kingdom with a special section on the life and achievements of King Abdul Aziz. The museum also houses the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives.

The complex will serve as the headquarters of a series of cultural, social and scientific events commemorating the centennial over the next 12 months. These include conferences and seminars to be attended by scholars and historians from Saudi Arabia and other countries, as well as exhibitions in which various government agencies will showcase their work.

The Riyadh water tower

The Riyadh water tower

Saudi Television, universities, libraries and other public institutions are also organizing special programs, exhibitions, conferences and other events to observe the centennial. The celebrations are not limited to Riyadh, but will take place throughout the Kingdom. Cultural and historic meetings and exhibits have been organized in Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah, Taif, Dammam and other cities.

Over the next 12 months, Saudi Arabia and the world will have a unique opportunity to become better acquainted with the life of a man who dedicated himself to the service of Islam and his people and who set his nation on the course of peace and prosperity .



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