At-Turaif, or simply, Turaif, a Saudi Arabian town in the Northern Borders Province, which lies close to the border with Jordan, is now open to the public. The UNESCO-recognized site has cultural significance as the original home to the ruling Saudi Dynasty, the House of Saud. It is the birthplace of the austere form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia today. The mud and earth buildings and palaces of Turaif, was closed to tourists, until now.
The vernacular buildings of Taraif are a living monument to traditional building from the region, and a statement that respectable buildings, palaces even, can be built from mud. The site has special significance because it is the original home to the current ruling Saudi dynasty whose family lived there in the 1800s.
What is Najdi Architecture?
Najdi architecture is an approach from the central Arabian Gulf region that combines three main factors –– from the people who lived there over the years including Bedouin tribes. Najdi is built in harmony with nature and 1) works in hot desert climates; 2) it provides privacy in residential buildings as Muslims guard their privacy (see mashrabiya), and 3) uses locally available materials such as mud brick, stone and wood.
Founded in the 15th century, Turaif is built in the Najdi architectural style, which is specific type of vernacular architecture from the Central Arabia.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the political and religious role of Turaif increased in importance and the citadel at at-Turaif became the center of power for the House of Saud and the spread of the Salafiyya reform in Islam. The property includes the remains of many palaces and housing units built on the edge of the ad-Dir’iyah oasis.
Modern Turaif is one of the cities that have been established for running the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.
According to UNESCO, the UN body that preserves human and natural heritage sites, the site of at-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah illustrates a significant phase in the human settlement of the central Arabian plateau, when in the mid-18th century Ad-Dir’iyah became the capital of an independent Arab State and an important religious centre. At-Turaif is an outstanding example of traditional human settlement in a desert environment. The current Saudi family building out Neom and The Line might look back to their ancestors for some more practical ideas of building the future.
The at-Turaif District was the first historic centre with a unifying power in the Arabian Peninsula. Its influence was greatly strengthened by the teachings of Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, a reformer of austere Sunni Islam who lived, preached and died in the city. He started the austere form of Islam called Wahhabism.
Abd al-Wahhab arrived to Najd in 1744 and preached a return to “pure” Islam. To that extent he sought protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal.
The Al Saud, now the House of Saud we know today, will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud tribe will get political legitimacy and regular tithes (money) from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Al Saud forged back then endures to this day in Saudi Arabia, according to a PBS history special.
By the 19th century, the House of Saud spread its influence across the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf and including the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. But in 1818, forces of the Ottoman Empire sacked Riyadh, and executed many of the religious and political leaders. Over the next eighty years the Al Saud attempt to reestablish their rule on the Arabian Peninsula without success.
Wahhabism, a fundamentalist approach to Islam had already spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Muslim world.
Today, most of the ancient part of Turaif is in ruins. If you visit it today what you will see has not been altered or reconstructed during 20th century reemployments or restorations. A major programme of restoration work is in place, which respects the original locations, plans and techniques. It must take particular care to preserve the attributes of the authenticity of its buildings and the road network.
Turaif, now open to tourism, is located at a bend in Highway 85 as it turns west to Jordan. It is located at around 31°40′39″N 38°39′11″E. In 2010, it had a population of 48,929.
All images above via UNESCO.
Have an edit or correction to make on this story? Want to share your travel experiences? Send us an email [email protected]