Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1999
“Christopher, if you keep me cooped up in this compound another day– another hour– I swear I will strip naked and run screaming through the streets!” Lillian was facing him, hands on hips, eyes flashing.
Chris Wayne stood in the entrance to their tiny two-bedroom apartment, backpack still slung over his left shoulder. “Hi, Honey. I’m home!” he said cheerfully. Lillian just glowered at him so he went on, “Hmm, am I sensing that Mrs. Wayne is feeling a little stressed?”
“Mrs. Wayne is your mother’s name, and she isn’t the one stuck in this hell-hole. Your wife is. Remember that vow to love and cherish? Well, I’m not exactly feeling the love here.” Lillian’s reproachful gaze kept Chris frozen in the doorway.
“I am sorry, Ms. Carter,” he said, emphasizing the Ms. “Well, as much as I know our expat neighbors would appreciate your lovely diversion, I have a better idea.”
He set down the backpack and walked tentatively toward the young woman whom, in the past twelve months, he had met, fallen totally in love with, married, left behind to start his fellowship at King Saud University, and picked up from the airport just one week ago.
“Do you remember your asking about that old ghost town outside the city?”
“Yes, Diriyah. Not a ghost town though. Not exactly. I’ve been reading about it.” Lillian relaxed enough to unclench her fists.
“Well, I checked and today is one of the days the public is allowed in. I thought we might drive out…” he never finished as she brushed past him, grabbed her own backpack off the hook by the door, and was already halfway to the car.
After a few minutes of quiet decompression in the passenger seat, Lillian spoke. “I’m sorry, Christopher. I guess I wasn’t as prepared for this as I thought.”
“You know, the Al Waha Compound was really the only choice that made sense,” he reminded her again. They had been over this. “It’s close to the university, it’s safe, and gives you a chance to be with other Americans while you get acclimated. Besides, it’s illegal for women to drive and honestly, Lil, if we lived off-compound, can you see yourself going around covered in an abaya?”
“I could get away with just my head covered,” she murmured, “but I do understand. I just don’t like it.” She sat up and shook her arms and hands, as if to cast off the bad mood. “So, what made you think of going to Diriyah?”
Chris smiled at the apparent success of his idea. “I just realized how big a shock it must be for you, coming straight from the wide open spaces of your dig in Eastern Washington to being cooped up like this. Roaming the ruins should be good therapy, don’t you think?”
“I love you,” Lil whispered, the mood now officially banished.
Their rusty dusty Subaru pulled into the small parking lot through the open gate. Getting out, they gawked at the shade cast by the grove of palms and smattering of deciduous trees. Lillian pointed to the ribbon of green that stretched north and south from where they stood. “That’s the Wadi Hanifa,” she said, explaining the rare sight. “The little rain that falls during the year all funnels through here. Strange to see trees in the middle of the desert.”
They looked around the parking lot, empty save for their own car. “Looks like a tourist hot spot,” Chris observed with a laugh. “Come on. We only have a couple hours before they lock the gate.”
They walked uphill, away from the Wadi Hanifa, and the pavement gave way to a packed dirt path. Their eyes met as they came in sight of the dwellings. There was a perceptible shift in the atmosphere. Though the sun was now low in the sky, heat waves still shimmered from all surfaces. Roofless shells of yellow mud homes and shops were rounded and reduced by many decades of erosion from sun and wind. Those to their right were eerily darkened by shadow and backlit by the sun. To their left, the ruins glowed golden, giving them an other-worldly appearance.
No birds sang. No crickets chirped. The silence was profound and Lillian felt compelled to speak softly. “I read that this was once the capital of the first Saudi kingdom. It was destroyed by the Ottomans in the early 1800s. The government has been working the past few years on restoring the palace and a few of the other larger structures further up.”
“Well, I’m all for walking up there,” Chris said with a shudder, anxious to move on.
They continued for about five minutes up the main path. The crumbling structures surrounding them now were much larger, taller. “High rent district,” Chris observed.
“There.” Lillian was pointing. Just a corner was visible of what must be the palace, towering above all else. A temporary chain link fence kept them from reaching the building, but they spent 20-30 minutes clambering around and over piles of construction debris and mounds and valleys of earth and sand until they had circumnavigated it.
Lillian, neck craned back to see the crenellations atop the palace wall some 50 feet above, said, “Weird. It looks new. Perfect, really. Yet, as deserted as the ruins of the village.”
“I can’t get over the color,” Chris replied. “Everything is exactly the same: sort of a pinkish yellow beige-y…” His voice trailed off. “Anyway, it all blends together. Hey, maybe we should think about getting back.”
Lillian smiled warmly at her young husband. “I’m so glad you brought me here, Christopher. I’d just like to walk out there along the walls before we go.”
Chris nodded and, holding hands, they walked from the palace and toward a large open space where a tall beige wall with interspersed guard towers stretched out several hundred yards. It stood baking in the desert kiln with piles of sand drifted against its sides like snow in the mountains back home in Washington.
“Look out!” Chris suddenly pulled Lillian’s hand backward, away from the edge of a twenty foot drop off.
Lillian’s hand squeezed his. “Gosh,” she breathed. “Thanks.”
When their eyes had adjusted, they could see several pieces of large equipment right below them, sheltered in the shade of the drop off. “They must be regrading,” Chris said. “Scraping away all this area and moving it over near the palace.”
“Come on!” Lillian said and she pulled him after her as she moved to the left. “I see some stairs cut into the side of the cliff. It looks like we can get to the wall from there.”
At the bottom of the steps the air was at least 20º cooler than in the sun. Instantly refreshed, and knowing they had little time left, they spontaneously broke into a run and raced toward the first guard tower in the wall. Lillian was more athletic, so she was in the lead when she went sprawling face first to the ground.
“Well, that was graceful,” Chris said uncharitably, then added, “Sorry, are you ok, Lil?”
“I think so,” Lillian grimaced. “I tripped over something.”
“Well, duh!” Chris chuckled, seemingly intent on losing all the points he had been chalking up.
But Lillian did not hear him. She jhust stood and walked back to where she had tripped. Something pointed was sticking out of the ground and she knelt to examine it with her hands. Without saying anything, she pulled off her backpack and dug an object out from the bottom of one of the pockets.
Chris snorted, “You’re kidding. You brought your trowel with you?”
Lillian just shrugged. “Always.” She began carefully scraping away the sandy soil. “It’s the corner of something.” She soon had several inches exposed around the edges of a metallic rectangle, about the size of a small cookie sheet.
Chris watched as Lillian intently dug a little deeper. “It’s a box. It’s awfully discolored, but I’m pretty sure it’s brass” she said, feeling for something along the long edge. Using her hand, she brushed away sand to reveal the hinge of a clasp. Without hesitating, she used the tip of the trowel to carefully pry open the clasp.
“Um, should you be doing this?” Chris asked softly.
“No,” she admitted, “but, as a woman I would never be given permission to be involved if we reported it. Besides, I found it.”
“True,” Chris agreed uncertainly. Kneeling across from her, he held his breath as Lillian carefully pulled up, using the clasp as a handle.
“Wow, it’s either stuck or fastened somewhere,” Lillian murmured. Brushing sand and feeling all around the circumference, she found a hinge running the length of the opposite side. “Not locked. Let’s give it a little more help.” She wedged the edge of her trowel into the slight crack separating the lid from the side of the brass vessel. As she steadily pried, the top stubbornly resisted until it finally popped open with a whoosh, its vacuum seal broken.
Within she found a sack. The tan fabric was covered with ornate embroidered designs in bright colors. The top of the sack was twisted once or twice and tucked against the side of the container.
“The box looks ancient, but inside it seems fairly new,” Chris offered.
“It is old,” Lillian replied. “But, we’d need some time in the lab to make a reasonable guess. As for the contents, it was air tight. Not to mention water and sand tight. It could have stayed looking pretty much like that for centuries.”
Her attention was now riveted on the bag. Barely breathing, she untucked the twisted material with her right hand and slowly lifted it. It was heavy, so she placed her left hand underneath to support it. Almost reverently, she set it on the ground in front of them.
Before going further, she looked nervously at her husband, who shrugged and nodded. She gently straightened and untwisted the top. It was so stiff she had to use both hands to pry the fabric fully open. Lillian leaned over the opening. She frowned and reached over again to her backpack and pulled out a small flashlight.
Peering into the now illuminated opening, a soft yellowish reflection bathed her incredulous face. Lillian sat back and locked eyes with Chris. Silently, she held out the flashlight. He took it, aimed the beam inside the sack, and bent over. His eyes narrowed, then widened. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked softly.
Just as Lillian was about to answer, they were startled by a sudden, very loud, melodic voice. It echoed through the roofless houses and shops, off the walls of the palace and the walls surrounding the grounds. Panicked, they jumped to their feet and looked all around for the source of the voice. Gradually, as the singing continued, they recognized it as the adhan, the call to prayer. It was coming from loudspeakers in the small village across the Wadi from the parking lot.
Lillian, in one motion, bent to snatch the sack from the ground and stuffed it into her open backpack. For just a moment, the archaeologist in her was in conflict as she stared at the gaping but still buried brass container, calculating the time needed to unearth it and the risk of damaging an important artifact. She swiftly knelt, grabbed the trowel and, with clenched-jaw determination, flipped the lid closed, refastened the clasp, then skillfully spread the sand back over and around the box. She clicked closed the flap of her backpack as she stood, slipped her trowel in the front pocket, slung it over her shoulder, and grabbed Chris’s hand as they ran back to the steps in the cliff.
The fast walk back to the car was fittingly surreal. Palm trees and ruins were dramatic silhouettes against a western sky that had been set ablaze by a sinking sun. The exotic sound of the adhan continued to fill the streets and hollow buildings. The young couple paused as the last rays of sunlight caught the minaret of the mosque in the valley, giving the appearance of a flaming torch. Many years later, every detail of this moment would be a perfectly preserved memory for them both.
As they reached the parking lot, the call to prayer ceased, but the song of the muezzin continued to reverberate above them in Diriyah. The couple got into their old Subaru and drove through the gate just as a uniformed guard approached to lock it. Lillian reached for Chris’s hand, which she noticed was shaking. “Well, Mr. Wayne, I think I owe you an apology. You really do know how to show a girl a good time.”