Rising from the barren desert, its towering skyscrapers glittering in the fierce sun, the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh is one of the most splendid and affluent cities in the modern world. Situated on plateau, Riyadh sprawls across about 600 square miles (1,600 square kilometres) of desert in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.
Riyadh Skyline © Muhaidib
Once a small oasis known for its date orchards (hence the origin of its name which in Arabic means 'place of gardens'), Riyadh's phenomenal growth spurt began in 1902 when the desert lord Ibn Saud took over the city, determined to turn it into the centre of his Arabic kingdom. Thirty years later it became the capital of the new country of Saudi Arabia. Fuelled by the revenue of the country's abundant oil fields, it has burgeoned into an awesome modern metropolis with a population well in excess of four million.
Modern it may be, visitors to Riyadh are never likely to forget that they are in the heart of the Arab world. In between the towering, futuristic buildings, and glitzy shopping malls are nestled ancient mosques and other remnants of times gone by, shady trees and date palms line the avenues, and camels sometimes sway between the luxury vehicles. The city is also run on a strictly Islamic moral and cultural code, and visitors should respect the rules while exploring the sights, both ancient and modern, in this fascinating city. Women have restricted access to certain attractions and sites.
The original 'wadis' (dry river beds), where wells were sunk to water the historic infant oasis settlement, have now been supplemented by numerous vast dams and piped in desalinated seawater to adequately quench the thirst of this prosperous capital, quite justly dubbed 'Queen of the Desert'. Travellers can therefore drink deeply of this unique urban landscape, which will not be found wanting in both historic interest and modern wonder.