The Turaif district in Diriyah was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010
The ruins of the old city of Diriyah lay on either side of the narrow valley known as Wadi Hanifa, which continues southwards through Riyadh and beyond. Consisting almost entirely of mud-brick structures, the ruins are divided into three districts, Ghussaibah, Al-Mulaybeed, and Turaif, set on top of hills overlooking the valley. Of the three, Turaif is the highest, and its bottom is easily accessible to tourists by foot. Part of the city wall, running along the edges of the wadi and also made of mud-bricks, are still extant along with some short observation towers.
The modern city is built at a lower altitude at the foot of the hill upon which Turaif is located. To the north of the town, inside the valley, are a number of gardens, palm groves, and small farms and estates. A dam known as Al-Ilb lies further north.
Although the location is sometimes identified with an ancient settlement mentioned by Yaqut and Al-Hamadani known as "Ghabra", the history of Diriyah proper dates back to the 15th century. According to the chroniclers of Nejd, the city was founded in 1446-7 by Mani Al-Mraydi, an ancestor of the Saudi royal family. Mani and his clan had come from the area of Al-Qatif in eastern Arabia, upon the invitation of Ibn Dir', who was then the ruler of a group of settlements that now make up Riyadh. Ibn Dir' is said to have been a relative of Mani' Al-Mraydi, and Mani's clan is believed to have left the area of Wadi Hanifa at some unknown date and were merely returning to their country of origin.
Initially, Mani' and his clan, known as the Mrudah, settled in Ghusaybah and Al-Mulaybeed. The entire settlement was named Al-Dir'iyah, after Mani's benefactor Ibn Dir'. Later on, the district of Turaif was settled. Many families from other towns or from the bedouin tribes of the nearby desert eventually settled in the area and by the 18th century Diriyah had become a well-known town in Nejd.
At that time, Muhammad ibn Saud emerged from a struggle within the ruling family of Al-Diriyah, the Al Migrin (sons of Migrin, a descendant of Mani'), and became the emir, or ruler, of Al-Diriyah. In 1744, Ibn Saud took in a fugitive religious scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who hailed from the town of Al-Uyaynah, lying on the same wadi some 30 miles upstream. Ibn Saud agreed to implement Ibn Abdul Wahhab's religious views, and what later became known as the First Saudi State, with its capital at Diriyah, was born. Within the next several decades, Ibn Saud and his immediate descendants managed to subjugate all of Nejd, as well as the eastern and western regions of Arabia, and sent raids into Iraq. Diriyah quickly swelled in size and increased in wealth, becoming the largest town in Nejd and a major city in Arabia by the standards of the time. However, the Saudis' conquest of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina drew the ire of the Ottoman Empire, the major Islamic power at the time, led to the Ottoman-Saudi War of 1811–1818 and an invasion of Arabia by Ottoman and Egyptian forces brought the Saudi state to an end in 1818, with Diriyah capitulating after a nearly-year-long siege. The leader of the invading force, Ibrahim Pasha, ordered the destruction of Diriyah. However, when a member of the local nobility tried to revive the Wahhabi state in Diriyah, Ibrahim ordered his troops to destroy the town even further and set whatever was left of it on fire. When the Saudis revived their fortunes in 1824 and again in 1902, they made their capital further south in Riyadh, which has remained their capital ever since.
The town's original inhabitants left Diriyah after 1818, with the bulk of them moving to Riyadh. In The Kingdom (first published in 1981), British author Robert Lacey observed that the Al Saud had "left the shell of their old capital behind them, an enduring reminder of the frontiers of the possible" and compared the old Diriyah to "a sand-blown Pompeii". However, the area was resettled in the late 20th century, mostly by former nomads (bedouin), and a new city was founded by the Saudi government in the late 1970s. This new city of Diriyah grew in size and is now a small but modern town and the seat of its own governorate. The ruins remain a tourist attraction, and are subject to a slow restoration project on the part of the Saudi government.
Renovations and development plans
Among the rebuilt structures are the Bath and guest house, the Qasr Nasr, the Saad bin Saud Palace (finished by the early 90s), the Burj Faysal (a wall tower renovated in the 80s), major sections of the wall surrounding Turaif and sections of the outer walls and some watch towers surrounding the wadi. Outside of the Turaif district, on the opposite side of the wadi Hanifa, the region of the mosque of Sheik Mohammad bin Abdulwahab has been completely remodelled, leaving only some of the more recent original structures standing to the north of the complexe build on the site of the historic mosque.
The "Turief District Development Plan" aims to turn the district into a major national, cultural and touristic center. Before turning the complete site into a modern open air museum documentation and necessary investigations, including excavations especially in places that may need to be remodelled, are planned in three major phases. These wil include sites such as:
Al-Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque and Salwa Palace.
Ibraheem Ibn Saud Palace and Fahad Ibn Saud Palace.
Farhan Ibn Saud Palace, Torki Ibn Saud Palace and Qoo'a Al-Sharia'a (eastern court of Salwa Palace)
Once finished, there will be a new visitors center as well as a documentation center. Four new museums are planned for the district.
A museum of war and defense (as this was the site of a major siege in Saudi Arabia).
A museum of horses.
A museum of social life.
A museum of commerce and finance.
Additionally a Turief traditional market will add to the open air museum experience.
The old city's historic structures include:
Salwa Palace. It was the residence and first home of the Al Saud Amirs and Imams during the First Saudi State. It is considered the largest palace on the site, rising four stories high. It is composed of five main parts built at different consecutive periods of time. It was probably finished by Saud ibn Abdul Aziz ibn Muhammad ibn Saud, who was Imam from 1803 to 1814.
Saad bin Saud Palace. One of the largest palaces on the site, it is famous for its courtyard, which was used as a stable. The palace is completely restored and several stories high.
The Guest House and At-Turaif Bath House a traditional building consisting of a number of small courtyards surrounded by rooms. The Bath House is famous for its different architectural styles and shows how the building was waterproofed by using different plasters. Both the Guest and Bath Houses were supplied with water from a well in the wadi.
Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque, a mosque built during the reign of Imam Mohammad bin Saud. Sheik Mohammad bin Abdulwahab used to give lessons about his reformed movement of Islam in this mosque. It became a center for religious education. Students used to travel to it from all parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Mosim Park: Football ground in the Nakheel area. It is home to football team Mosim FC, who are called The Pride of Dir'iyah. Mosim Park was erected in 2007 after Mosim FC moved there from their old ground downtown of Riyadh.
The layout of the city itself can be easily studied in the National Museum of Saudi Arabia with the help of a large scale detailed model of the city on display there.