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 a plateau, Riyadh sprawls across about 600 square miles (1,600 square kilometres) of desert in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and is attracting more and more visitors annually.
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 blossomed into an awe-inspiring modern metropolis with a population well in excess of four million.
Though modern, Riyadh remains in the heart of the Arab world, and visitors will be constantly reminded of the fact. In between the towering, futuristic buildings and glitzy shopping malls are ancient mosques and other remnants of a bygone era. Shady trees and date palms line the avenues, and camels can sometimes be seen swaying between the luxury vehicles. The city is also run on a strictly Islamic legal, moral and cultural code, and visitors should respect the rules while exploring the sights, both ancient and modern, in this fascinating city. Unfortunately, women still 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 as well as desalinated seawater to adequately quench the thirst of this prosperous capital. Travellers often marvel at this unique urban landscape, which is certainly not short on historic interest nor modern wonder.