There is an old market in the capital that gives Riyadh a special atmosphere. It is in this market that one can search for history, and invariably there’s every chance that you’ll find it. Artifacts rich in heritage and unique properties of past generations are abound in this market. For this is one place in Saudi Arabia you can be sure to get the historical item you are seeking.
Al-Zall market in Riyadh is considered a favored destination for many tourists and residents, being one of the most important historical monuments, tourist and archaeological sites. The importance of Al-Zall market, from a historical perspective, is because it is the main market for carpets, clothing for men and weapons, but the market’s core activity remains the same even in the present. The sale of antiques and artifacts, copperplate, clothes, pots, incense burners, ancient armor, guns and swords, along with various types of carpets and rugs, are still its primary goods.
According to various pieces of research and historical studies, the history of the market dates back to 1901, where it formed part of the Al-Diriyah old palace, the house that was inhabited by the late King Abdul Aziz when he entered Riyadh. At that time, the market was also a premier location for crafts, whether making “Mashaleh” mantles or folk outfits, carpets and footwear. The market continues these activities to this day, giving the city unique character, while reliving the years before skyscrapers, towers and tall buildings.
Some people like to describe Al-Zall Market as Khan Al-Khalili Market in Egypt or as Al-Hamidiya Market in Syria. The reality of the Al-Zall Market was that it was the pride of the area because of the popularity of the carpet trade then, and still has a prominent place for old market goers.
The most prominent types of carpets and rugs in the market are the Turkish and Iranian varieties, including Qumm carpets — from the city of Qom, Iran — and the Tabrizi, Kashmiri, Afghani and Russian varieties.
The market is located in the area between Tariq bin Ziyad Road to the south and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab to the west and Sheikh Mohammed bin Ibrahim to the east, covering an area of more than 38,000 sq. meters.
Due to its commercial and archaeological importance in the region, the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh has proceeded with the development of the Palace of Rule, located in the center of the city, and this development includes Al-Zall Market. This makes the entire region a tourist landmark and an economically vibrant place through a program of integrated tourism at a city level and is included on its map of domestic tourism. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) considers the market a tourist attraction that is important to the city, while the project aims at improvements to raise the level of the urban market and to maintain its existing business, the reorganization of the infrastructure to carry out tiling, shading and lighting of the interior corridors of the market, as well as improving passages and roofs.
According to traders the best times and peak seasons are the holiday seasons for non-Muslim foreigners, especially birthdays, Christmas and New Year, and also during Ramadan and the Eid holidays. Though goods are supplied from all over the Kingdom, it is the Bedouins who support the market with their products of local heritage, thereby keeping the past alive.
The vendors — most of them elderly — are fluent in foreign languages, especially English, for a large number of residents who visit the market are Americans, followed by Canadians, the British and the French.
According to researchers, more than 70 percent of the foreign customers buy silverware, especially necklaces, rings and frames at prices ranging between SR700 and SR1, 500.
The market has recently seen an influx of a large expatriate workforce, triggering a price war and affecting the ambiance of the market. These workers now control sales, as they sell cheap imitations.
Omar Ahmed Nejm, who was browsing the market, said “Last summer I visited Riyadh and a friend took me to the Bin Dayel and Al Diriyah markets. I felt this place is different from Riyadh with its huge buildings and complexes and commercial centers and entertainment. Also, we can get the same goods that we get in shopping malls, but at cheaper prices.”
Harby bin Mohammad Mujahid, a trader specialized in selling “Mashaleh” or mantles, said “The mantles are manufactured in the city by specialized plants, as well as in the city of Al-Ahsa, Madinah and Jeddah, and even in Syrian cities, but the best come from Al-Ahsa and prices start at SR 2,000 for those.”
The High Commission for the Development of Riyadh was very keen to ensure that Al-Zall Market was one of the Riyadh’s leading tourist landmarks that show visitors the heritage of Saudi Arabia.