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Cities of Saudi Arabia – Makkah, Medinha, Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam


Makkah is the spiritual centre of the Islamic world to which all Muslims turn when they pray.


Medinah is the centre which welcomed the Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) when he left Makkah in the early days of his mission and is the city where he's buried. See 'Cradle of Islam' factfile.


When the British political agent Captain William Shakespeare took the first known photographs of Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, in 1911, it was built almost entirely of mudbrick, surrounded by 7.5 metre walls.

The name ‘Riyadh’ means ‘garden’ and outside the walls were abundant date groves supporting a town of about 8,000 people. Camel caravans entered the city through one of its nine gates before wending their way through narrow, sandy streets.

Today, Riyadh is one of the fastest-growing capital cities in the world, home to more than 3.5 million people. The city is a buzz of activity with heavy traffic flowing along huge highways that snake out from its boundaries across the length and depth of the country. A steel and glass landscape of high-rise buildings has mainly replaced the “old city”, of about 1 square kilometre. Since the daring raid in 1902 when Abdulaziz stormed the Masmak fort in the heart of Riyadh, the fortunes of Saudi Arabia have been reflected in the growth of this city. A spearhead lodged in the doorway of the fort is a visible reminder of this daring expedition, but all around modernisation is predominant.

New beginnings

In 1938, following the discovery of the Kingdom’s first oil field at Dhahran on the east coast, new income began to flow into the country. In the first of many new building programmes, King Abdulaziz constructed the Murabba’ Palace north of the walls. It was described as being so grand that new arrivals sometimes mistook it for the capital city itself. Many parts of the old mudbrick city were demolished to make way for modern construction. By the 1950’s Riyadh was ten times larger than its original walled enclosure.

Another 50 years on, in 2000, the Riyadh sky was lit up by a spectacular firework display marking the inauguration of its first skyscraper. The 267 metre Al-Faisaliah complex, owned by the King Faisal Foundation, employs state-of-the-art technology. All profits generated from the complex will go to support the Foundation’s many philanthropic projects worldwide. The Kingdom Project was the next skyscraper to be completed, reaching a few metres higher than Al Faisaliah. Undoubtedly more will follow. But at the same time as this expansion takes place, the city is striving to protect and preserve the few remaining structures from earlier eras.

Two major projects are the centrepieces of this effort. The Qasr al-Hokm project in the city centre, and the King Abdulaziz Historical Centre project to the north. The first project set about the rehabilitation of the old city, preserving the Masmak fort and rebuilding the city’s main Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque at its original location. Qasr al-Hokm or “Justice Palace”, King Abdulaziz’s headquarters after retaking Riyadh, has also been rebuilt. The reconstruction of two city gates, some of the wall and a watchtower enables tourists to retrace the steps of early 20th century visitors arriving to see the King. Walking from the eastern al-Thumairi Gate, a couple of hundred metres further on they will find the Masmak fort on their right and Qasr al-Hokm straight ahead.

The King Abdulaziz Historical Centre covers some 360,000 square metres and includes the Murabba Palace, with associated mud-brick palaces. The old buildings have been renovated using traditional materials, and some new buildings have been constructed using the same architectural designs to preserve old cultural material and historical archives. The centre includes the Water Tower, another landmark, and nearby stands al-Hamra Palace built by Crown Prince Sa’ud who became King after his father’s death in 1953. This building became the chambers of the Kingdom’s first Council of Ministers.

Suqs — ancient and modern

Visitors can also get a taste of the past by visiting Riyadh’s many suqs. Passing the Masmak fort, the Dira suq is typical of old suqs in towns all over Arabia. Narrow alleyways are lined with shops on both sides containing an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, both practical and frivolous. Gold jewellery, strings of pearls, pashmina shawls, antiques, carpets, camelbags, frankincense and Saudi outfits are all crammed into these small outlets. At weekends, men hold open-air auctions, loudly advertising their bargains, from sandalwood to weapons, guns or khanjars. The women have their own suq nearby. Their wares are often sold by veiled Bedouin ladies, and include hand-woven baskets from the Asir region in the south, old silver jewellery, spices and other household items.

Did you know?Beyond this area is the falcon market. The hooded birds wait silently for their new owners. They sit on wakirs, perches with padded tops on spikes which stick into the sand. The birds change hands for a great deal of money. A selection of hoods, jesses, hawking bags and protective gloves for their owners are also for sale.

From this suq, walk to the covered Batha suq to look for modern items such as electrical goods. One unusual feature of suqs in Arabia is that all the shops in a row sell similar types of goods. At the musical instruments suq, there are drums, pipes of all sizes and ouds; lutes made from discarded oil cans. Everywhere, the air is filled with the aroma of incense and spices. A wander round the suqs always provides a fascinating and exotic outing.


Another magnificent and modern metropolis is Jeddah, on the Red Sea. Historians have traced Jeddah’s existence back 2,500 years to when it was the home of the Quda’a tribe.

Jeddah was located in such a strategic and convenient place on trade routes that it soon grew into a centre of commerce. It acquired even greater importance when Caliph Othman bin Affan declared it the official port of the two Holy Cities, Makkah and Madinah. Many of the pilgrims coming from all over the world took up residence in the city, and it remains home to many of the country’s most important trading families.

By 1825, and under the control of the Ottomans, Jeddah began receiving its first diplomatic representatives from Europe. Old Jeddah was known as Bilad al Kanasil (the City of Consulates) and the historic part of the town still keeps the name of al-Bilad today. Some houses in this old area are three, four and even five storeys high. Constructed from old coral stone and gypsum, with delicately carved wooden balconies, they are beautiful reminders of the past. One of Jeddah’s most magnificent houses is Bayt Nassif, in which King Abd al Aziz stayed after capturing the city in 1925, Today it is a cultural centre holding special exhibits or lectures. In the past they used trained camels to go up and down the seven floors of the building, carrying goods. The kitchen was on the fourth floor, so instead of a conventional stairway, a ramp with spaced crossbeams was devised.

Unusual, modern features of Jeddah are a variety of sculptures and monuments built right down the middle of many highways, or on roundabouts. Numbering more than 400, they provide a unique identity for each place. Some were created by famous artists, such as Henry Moore and Joan Miro.


Dammam is the capital of the Eastern Province, which is the largest of Saudi Arabia’s fourteen administrative regions and is where Saudi’s vast petroleum reserves are centred.

Dhahran, Damman and Al-Khobar form a triangle of modern cities, of which Damman is the largest, and longest settled. Its growth since the 1940s has been spectacular – once a minor fishing and pearling village, it is now the capital of the Eastern Province. Dhahran grew up around the huge Aramco compound. A popular museum illustrating the history of oil in Saudi Arabia is housed here. The University of Petroleum and Minerals is also in Dhahran. Life in the Eastern Province revolves round these oil industry towns, although there are also many historical cities such as Hofuf and Qatif. The port of Ras Tanura, 20 km north of Damman, has become one of the largest oil storage and shipping centres in the world.

Prosperity from oil has also changed Al-Khobar from a small fishing community into a busy town where crude oil is shipped from its pier to Bahrain for processing. It is now the point of entry to Saudi Arabia from Bahrain via the King Fahd Causeway.

mOre To find out more about these cities:

A guide to the capital city, with video, IPIX and photographs:

Information on the main cities in the kingdom, from saudia-online.com:
.../travel/Major Cities of the Kingdom_files/saudicities.shtml

Saudi Arabia by the first photographers
William Facey, ISBN 0-905743-74-1

Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders, Galen Frysinger, Royal Geographical Society and Saudi Aramco World / PADIA.

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