This property was the first capital of the Saudi Dynasty, in the heart of the Arabian Penisula, north-west of Riyadh. Founded in the 15th century, it bears witness to the Najdi architectural style, which is specific to the centre of the Arabian peninsula. In the 18th and early 19th century, its political and religious role increased, and the citadel at at-Turaif became the centre of the temporal power of the House of Saud and the spread of the Wahhabi reform inside the Muslim religion. The property includes the remains of many palaces and an urban ensemble built on the edge of the ad-Dir’iyah oasis.
The presence of humans in the Wadi Hanifah area dates back some 80,000 years, as evidenced by Acheulean and Mousterian remains. Conditions were less favourable than in the Fertile Crescent; they initially attracted hunters and later nomads. Stone artefacts and rock carvings have been discovered in western Najd.
The remains of a village site with drystone walls thought to date from the 5th millennium BCE have been discovered just north of Riyadh. Agricultural settlement seems to have developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE; the domestication of the camel dates from the same period.
In antiquity Arabia played a role as an active caravan trade-route between the Indian Ocean, the Fertile Crescent, and the Mediterranean; the Incense Route passed through Arabia. Settlements developed during the 1st millennium BCE. It seems that there was cultivation at the Wadi Hanifah, but direct archaeological evidence is still limited.
The end of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity caused a decline in the centres of trade and settlement in central Arabia. The areas of wells and former oases became places of refuge for the nomads and their flocks and herds. Central Arabia at this time was dominated by the Yemenite Himyarite tribes. In the 5th century CE the Christian Banu Hanifah tribe resumed the agricultural colonization of the heart of the peninsula, in the Tasm region. They submitted to Islam after their defeat in 634 at the hands of the army of the Caliph Ibn al-Walid.
In the 6th and 7th centuries, however, the Banu Hanifah tribe appears to have rebelled against the Umayyad Caliphate. They did not submit to the Abbasid central power there until the mid-9th century. From the 9th to the 10th century there was a slow process of agricultural development of the oases in the central region of Arabia. The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta recorded the presence of the Banu Hanifah tribe in the valley that bore their name In the 14th century. Population levels, however, stagnated or decreased in this period.
The 15th century brought more favourable climatic conditions, lending a new impetus to the oases and settlements with the arrival of newcomers from the coastal regions. Ad-Dir'iyah seems to have been created in this period and its development reached an initial apogee in the 16th century. It was a centre of trade and its power extended throughout the region. However, in the 17th century and at the start of the 18th century the pre-eminent town of the Najd was ‘Uyanynah.
At the start of the 16th century the Sharif of Makkah (Mecca) recognized the Ottoman Caliphate, which was seeking to take control of the Arabian peninsula. This was a time of sharp confrontation with the West, as the Portuguese occupied sites in the Indian Ocean. The Sharif attacked the oases and nomads of the Najd for the first time in 1578.
The power of the Banu Hanifah families was gradually challenged by the secular development of the settlement of the oases of Inner Arabia. By the start of the 17th century there were only three oases left under their control, including ad-Dir'iyah. Two rival tribal groups then emerged and a power struggle developed between the Al Muqrin and the Al Watban. The organization of the oases reflected this antagonism, with separation within districts and villages. The Al Watban held control at ad- Dir'iyah initially, but in 1720 Saud Bin Mohammed from the rival Al Muqrin community assumed the chieftainship and drove his rivals out of the town, and in this way became the founder of the House of Saud.
In the 18th century successive imams (heads of the House of Saud) fortified the oasis along the high ground on either side of the Wadi Hanifah. This was a period marked by urban development and the construction of the citadel of at-Turaif.
Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahhab, who hailed from the Najd where a form of paganism was maintained in social life, advocated a Reform based on the Sunnah, the orthodox Muslim tradition. The oneness of God, the impossibility of comparing God with anything else, and the heresy of any mediation were reasserted. This religious movement was fully recognized by the second imam, Mohammed Bin Saud, who established it in 1745 as the moral and legal basis of his state. Ad-Dir'iyah then became the centre for propagating the Reform. The town was an important educational centre, with many Qur'anic schools drawing students from the whole of the peninsula.
The Saudi dynasty at the same time undertook the conquest of the other towns and oases of the Najd, which it completely controlled by 1785. In the 1790s it dominated the east of the Arabian peninsula, and its influence extended to the west as far as the foothills of the Hijaz mountains.
In the second half of the 18th century and at the start of the 19th century, ad-Dir'iyah was the headquarters of a powerful Islamic administration, which boasted renowned judges and imams. Delegations and interest groups came to petition the Imam. It had some thirty Qur'anic schools, and it was also the political and military centre of the power of the House of Saud. At its apogee the army could assemble up to 100,000 men. The urban ensemble linked with the oasis was developed, particularly the Salwa palaces in the citadel of at-Turaif, the heart of the power base. However, according to Western travellers the population of ad- Dir'iyah did not exceed 13,000 at the start of the 19th century.
The success of the Sunnah Reform and the expanding military power of the House of Saud was inevitably a cause of concern for the Ottoman Caliphate. Tensions and confrontations were frequent over a period of some thirty years. The House of Saud initially emerged triumphant, imposing its influence on Central Hijaz and Mecca (1803) and thus controlling the pilgrimage. This was the apogee of the first dynasty of the House of Saud.
The Ottoman counter-offensive was organized from Egypt. The Ottomans reconquered the Hijaz (1813) and then began a campaign in the heart of the Arabian peninsula. Ibrahim Pasha invaded the Najd at the head of a powerful and cosmopolitan army (1816-18). The campaign culminated in the siege and conquest of ad- Dir'iyah. The town was then sacked on two occasions, in 1818-19 and in 1821. The House of Saud and the Wahhabis were subjected to repression.
The Imam Turki re-established the power of the House of Saud in 1824, forcing the departure of the Ottomans He founded a second dynasty and chose Riyadh as the new capital. The previous seat of power in the at-Turaif district, largely in ruins following the war, was abandoned. The few western visitors in the mid-19th century testified to a town in ruins. The local population returned to live in the oasis, where farming activities continued.
At-Turaif remained abandoned until the mid-20th century, when some two hundred families moved back into the eastern quarter near the oasis, building houses of mud brick (adobe) on the remains of the old town.
The Department of Antiquities bought the whole site in 1982 and expropriated its inhabitants. The city of Riyadh has grown considerably and now reaches the gates of the ad-Dir'iyah oasis. The region has also seen the development of road infrastructures. Today there are three main urban sectors in Ad-Dir'iyah. Urban development is taking place almost entirely outside the buffer zone.