If you are in Riyadh around January-February time, then you shouldn’t miss going to the National Heritage and Folk Cultural Festival – popularly known as Janadriyah.

For over two decades, the Kingdom has held one of the most important annual cultural festivals in the Arab world, which is regarded as a crossroads where poetry, intellect, culture, art, theatre and history meet. Its main objective is to give recognition and prominence to the old Saudi cultural heritage and the present accomplishments of the Saudi nation as a whole.

Launched in 1985, the two-week festival is traditionally opened with a camel race run over a 19km track, which is appropriate since camel races had already been run there for more than a decade. It’s quite common for there to be over 250 camels entered into one particular race and each has a large red number painted onto its neck. Prizes can include brand-new four-wheel-drive cars or even a 2,000-gallon water tanker, plus, of course, various cash alternatives.

Artisans such as potters, wood workers, weavers and carvers demonstrate their traditional skills and crafts; literary figures participate in poetry competitions (particularly of the popular genre known as Nabatean poetry) and recite historic verses, whilst folklore troupes from across the Kingdom perform traditional dances, songs and music.

The most famous dance of them all is the men’s sword dance, known as the Al Ardah. This is regarded as the National Dance of Saudi Arabia, and during the festival it is performed by members of the royal house of Saud. The men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder and, from their midst, a poet begins to sing verses or a short melodic line while drummers beat the rhythm.

Since its inception, the Janadriyah Festival has been organised by the National Guard as part of its national responsibilities and it is able to use its regional offices and links with regional governments to find good examples of tradition and heritage from each of the kingdom’s seven geographical regions.

Look out for the sawani, a sturdy contraption which draws water from a deep well for irrigation using wooden wheels mounted high above the well on a strong bar of athl wood, and turned by four camels. When the camels pull ropes over the wheels– lifting and lowering wide-mouthed water skins – the ungreased bearings let out high-pitched squeals. It used to be that the number of wheels on a sawani was the measure of a man’s prosperity.

Entrance to the Janadriyah Festival is free, but it is for men only except for a one-off women’s day, which tends to get announced only at the very last minute.

The easiest way to find the festival site is to take the airport road from Junction 8, and shortly before the security check point, take the exit which is signposted to Al Jinadriyah. The festival grounds lie about 25kms further on and are well signposted, though if you follow the crowds, you won’t go far wrong.

Another route is to drive towards the airport, then to follow signs for private aviation, thence when you have basically turned eastwards, to drive about 5kms, through a check point, straight over a cross roads, and at the traffic lights Janadriyah will be straight ahead of you, practically opposite the BAE Systems Salwa compound.

Entrance: 24 57.7’ N; 46 47.2’

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