How do you achieve the balance between respecting old traditions and implementing modern methods during a vast restoration project? That was the thought foremost in my mind while toiling under a searing sun in the desert.
A little exaggeration perhaps but the temperature was 35 degrees with no shade and I was mixing a black, heavy and smelly mess into the shape of a building brick. That was the aim. Watching were the experts, craftsmen who appeared to be unaffected by the heat. In front of them lines and lines of drying bricks all stamped with the date.
We were filming at Diriyah once a powerful centre of politics and religion where state and Islam were fused in 1744 to map out the future for Saudi Arabia. It was the original home of the Saudi Royal family and so it would have remained down through the centuries but for the invading Ottomans. They laid siege to the growing city and eventually sacked it. The history of Saudi took a sharp turn.
Now the area is being restored, a window on its past. In 2010 the oldest district Al Turaif was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. That coincided with the start of a programme to conserve the fragile ruins.
The decision was taken to use centuries old traditions of making building bricks from mud and straw. The skills had to be re-learned, the way to treat the soil, bind the straw and get the right consistency re-discovered. Not just bricks, the same mud and straw is used for rendering the buildings.
It’s not easy. Placing the clump of this mud in a frame I worked at it with my hands sprinkling water and punching it to make sure there was no air trapped in the black goo. Ten very hot minutes later time to gently lift the frame. The shape was there, the right consistency was not – crucial in the drying process. So as the senior site engineer Ahmed Abdul Hamid said to me on this occasion they would not require my building skills!