Qasr Al Hokm

The present city of Riyadh is well over 100 times greater than the eight square kilometres it occupied in the 1930s, when it was merely a provincial town of adobe buildings enclosed by a wall. (These mud houses were designed to provide insulation against the fierce heat of summers and bitter winds of winter.)

It first became the base for a Saudi state in 1810 AD, when Imam Turki bin Abdullah moved to Riyadh and established it as his capital. He built the wall around the city to protect its residents from external attack and erected a ‘Qasr’, or fortified palace, in the heart of the town which was used as a seat of government. He also built a great mosque. During the 1860s, the Musmak fortress was constructed northeast of the Qasr.

Today, the Qasr Al Hokm district remains the central core of old Riyadh. It is bordered by Imam Turki bin Abdullah Street to the north, Tareq bin Zaid Street to the south, King Faisal Street to the east and King Fahd Road to the west.

Redevelopment of the old town was undertaken by the Riyadh Development Authority (RDA), starting in 1976, and two major projects worth a total of around 1.6 billion Sa’udi riyals (US$425 million) are the centrepieces of this effort: the Qasr Al Hokm project in the old city centre, and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre at the Murabba Palace complex about a kilometre to the north which extends over an area of 37 hectares.

The plan aimed to revitalise and preserve the historic character of the old district by the planning of new streets and pedestrian areas, and the landscaping of public urban spaces. Special attention was given even to the finest of details, such as manhole covers, which were custom-designed to blend in with the surrounding paving pattern of the streets.

The Qasr Al Hokm project started off the rebuilding of old Riyadh. Of most interest to historians, the RDA has preserved Musmak fort within a wide square, and rebuilt the city’s main Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Mosque at its original location to accommodate 17,000 worshipers.

In another key development, city planners rebuilt the Justice Palace – King Abdul Aziz’s headquarters after retaking Riyadh – on its original site in traditional architectural style. Two covered passageways between Qasr Al Hokm and the mosque are reminiscent of the bridges originally built to allow the king to cross above the traditional market area.

The project also reconstructed two city gates – Al Thumairi and Al Dukhna (which had been demolished in 1953) – as well as a small part of the wall and a watchtower, all at their original sites, and built several public squares and a big new souq; and visitors of today can retrace the path of early 20th-century guests arriving to meet the king. Walking from the eastern, Al Thumairi Gate a couple of hundred metres down to Al Musmak Square, they will find Musmak fort on their right and the Qasr Al Hokm straight ahead.

The Great Mosque of Riyadh (the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Mosque) was used as a focal point by the designers from which the rest of the area radiated outwards. It has two square minarets, at the north and south ends of the prayer hall, which indicate the kiblah direction on the skyline.

In addition, the courtyards and open squares were aligned towards the kiblah so that they can be used as additional prayer areas during Eid days and Fridays, when the size of the congregation exceeds the capacity of the main prayer hall and courtyard.

The Jordanian architect – Rasem Badran – designed the Great Mosque with no domes as, he explained, these are usually associated with tombs, and are not compatible with the Wahhabi philosophy of the Saudis.

The outer walls are clad in local limestone, with small, triangular openings in patterned formations, whilst the courtyards and open squares are landscaped with palm trees to provide shade. The granite benches and drinking fountains make them a popular place for families.

The reconstruction of the Justice Palace and the Great Mosque – which were completed in 1992 – makes the third time these buildings were constructed during the last century at almost the same location.

The first reconstruction was in 1920 during the unification of the Kingdom; whilst in the late 1950s, when King Sa’ud moved the government bureaucracy to Riyadh, these mud brick structures were rebuilt as part of yet another modernisation of the town.

The Qasr Al Hokm is easily found in the area to the southwest of Batha’a, known as Dirrah.

Starting from Kingdom Centre, go south down the King Fahd Highway, passing the Faisaliah Tower and Ministry of Interior on your left. You will drive into a shallow underpass from which you should take the second exit (with a white sign to Qasr Al Hokm only in Arabic). Drive to the next traffic lights and turn left. Cross over the next lights and the Qasr Al Hokm is on your right.

Alternatively, you can drive south down Olaya Street, past the Interior Ministry and follow the road past the Murabba Palace complex with its distinctive water tower until you see the Suleiman Centre on your left.

Turn right at the next lights and you will see Musmak Fortress to your left with the Qasr Al Hokm area further on to your left.

On the wall is a plaque for the General Presidency of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices (HQ of the Muttawain religious police).

Al Thumairi Gate 24 37.8’ N; 46 42.9’E
Al Dukhna Gate 24 37.6’ N; 46 42.7’ E

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