Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Makkah, has been a major port for both tradesmen and pilgrims.
It lies on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, at a favourable position for Indian Ocean trade routes especially since the construction of the Suez Canal in the 19th century. Also, over 100,000 pilgrims arrive here yearly for their pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the historic town, most of the remaining old buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable are the typical Roshan Tower houses and Ribat-s, fortified lodges for merchants and pilgrims.
Map of Historic JeddahLoad map
Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia with a population of nearly five million. The country's commercial centre and the gateway for pilgrims to Mecca. Jeddah is also considered to be the cultural centre of Saudi and the most liberal city in the country. Of course, we couldn't miss it on our journey across the country. Generally, it's an easy visit as there are regular bus and air connections not only from Saudi, but also neighbouring countries.
The drive in was surprisingly long. Not surprisingly, the city is indeed sprawling, and we passed clusters of buildings, commercial and multifunctional centers for dozens of kilometers on the highway. Then comes the attempt to get somewhere near the historic centre of Al-Balad, a World Heritage Site. Remember my previous reviews and my mindless yapping on the subject of permanent reconstruction? Well, Jeddah is no different. One entire neighborhood in the wider city center adjacent to the old city has been practically razed to the ground and is apparently being reconstructed or outright redeveloped. Some roads are blocked or traffic is being diverted because of this. Eventually we manage to get the car as close as possible to our destination, park and spend the next fifteen minutes or so trying to get around all the areas where something is actively being built and get to the part of the historic centre where we can walk. Finally we get to the historic part of Historic Jeddah. It's a pleasant, if slightly exhausting, walk - it's over 30 degrees there, even in late November, and the midday sun is burning intensely. However, we have the whole of Al-Balad practically to ourselves, as it's midday prayer time.
Jeddah became an important city in the Muslim context around 647 AD, when the third Muslim caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, transformed it into a major port linking the Hijaz region with Mecca, replacing the port of Al Shoaib to the southwest of the holy city. It received both pilgrims and goods, and as a result the city developed into a thriving multicultural centre. Al-Balad received its World Heritage Site status for its unique architecture of tower houses with wooden features, built in the late 19th century by the city's wealthy merchants. In addition to these, you will find lower houses made out of coral stone, mosques, shops, all in narrow streets and occasionally meeting in squares. This style was once widespread across both shores of the Red Sea, but outside of Saudi Arabia, only tiny remnants of similar towns remain.
In addition to our lunchtime stroll, we stopped here the following day in the early evening, when not only was the weather friendlier, but we were suddenly greeted by open shops and cafes on the ground floors of the buildings. We also visited one of the tall tower houses that housed the museum. The interior of the house left in its original state sans some arrangement of the furniture and other exhibits did look a bit shabby. All floors and stairs were crooked, but it added to the charm. There was a well inside the house which I found interesting. Part of Al-Balad is touristy, but locals still live in its deeper recesses, and as if by magic you suddenly go from the slick exhibition area to the atmospheric streets where locals stroll, buy bread, have tea or rush to the mosque for evening prayers. Local Jeddahis also stroll through the old town in the evening, and there's a rush to park in the adjacent streets before sunset, so take note of that if you do travel by car.
So Jeddah gets inscribed - against the wishes of ICOMOS! The large bloc vote of Islamic countries present on the 2014 WHC, combined, possibly, with the unwillingness of the others to take part in anything which could be regarded as being “anti-Islamic”, meant that the “professional” objections were easily overturned. Whoever it was who decided that the title of this site which, when ICOMOS recommended non-inscription in 2011, was merely “The Historical City of Jeddah” should be changed to “Historic Jeddah – the Gate to Makkah” when it was re-nominated (in a much reduced form) for 2014 carried out a master stroke – who could vote against “THE Gate to Makkah”!? (Interestingly one of the ICOMOS recommendations - never discussed - was that the title should be changed to "Jeddah – A gate to Makkah"!)
It is interesting to compare the 2011 and 2014 nominations. The former included 3 areas of the city and, in relation to its “pilgrimage” history, ICOMOS concluded that “the impact of pilgrimage to the Holy Cities on Historic Jeddah is therefore relatively recent and today plays a minor role, as the pilgrims disembark at Jeddah International Airport, which is located miles north of the Historic City of Jeddah. The common area across the 2 nominations consists of the “central part of the historic city Al Balad”. The 2014 nomination has identified a number of buildings related to the pilgrimage which received NO mention in the 2011 evaluation so, presumably, the nomination file then didn’t major on them either! These are “Ribats” and “Wakalas”. These 2 types of structure have been moved “centre stage” in the nomination – “Wakala” being “large specially constructed buildings” where “richer pilgrims” could rent a room whilst "Ribats" are “Fortified buildings built originally for defence but also used for merchants as well as pilgrims.” The problem is that “Although wakala-s are mentioned as part of the justification for OUV, ICOMOS notes that no details are provided in the nomination dossier as to their survival or location.” (Indeed ICOMOS believes that NONE have survived!!) Of Ribats – well there are apparently 3 inside the 2014 inscribed area for which “a program of restoration has been commenced.” –but they are not specified.
We visited Jeddah in 2002, spending 1 night there and having a guided morning tour followed by a free afternoon before flying on in the evening to the mountainous south west of the country. It had become an enormous city even then (now 3.5 million people) and the centre had moved away from the Balad area which has also been cut off from the Red Sea by land reclamation. I remember that one of the glossy books for sale about the city was one entirely about its roundabouts (“Traffic circles”)! Jeddah has many of these and has installed art works on each – make a Google search if you are interested further! But Old Jeddah has not survived this enormous expansion of the city without significant losses. Wahabbite beliefs are particularly concerned that “old” things should not be “revered” in any way. If this belief can result in the destruction of early Islamic heritage sites in Mekkah and Medina it is hardly surprising that, for many years, the development of cities like Riyadh and Jeddah has been accompanied by what, at times, has seemed to be a deliberate intention to demolish the old. Against this background it is a fact to be welcomed that other Saudis are opposing this trend and have set up organizations to preserve what is left. But does what is left have OUV?
In fact, despite the revised title of the site, the main buildings on display relate more to the trading history of Jeddah than to its role in the Haj. They are all late 19th or early 20th century and the “stars” are the so-called “Tower Houses” or “Roshan” with their “Al-rawasheen” or carved wooden bay windows (Photo). They go up to 7 stories and were constructed by the “Merchant classes” for their own use. When we were there they were all occupied as private houses and we couldn’t go into any of them. Apart from the windows, they were not particularly impressive externally and often had rather tatty local stores occupying the ground floors. Some seemed quite modern with concrete walls around the traditional carved wooden windows –whether these were really authentic “tower houses” or just modern structures adopting the traditional windows in much the same way as a semi in UK might have “Tudor beams” I don’t know. The AB evaluation states “Details of six of these tower houses are provided in the nomination dossier. But ICOMOS notes that it is not stated how many of these tower houses have survived”. Another AB comment is that the best example was destroyed in 1959 during road widening!
The only building we did enter was the “Al-Naseef House”. Photos of this are on the Web but amazingly it doesn’t get even a mention in the AB evaluation despite being in the heart of al-Balid. It does have around 7 floors but whether it is strictly a “Tower house” I am not sure – it isn’t purely “traditional” in exterior design. It was built in 1872 by a wealthy merchant and must have been one of the city’s “best residences” when Abdulaziz ibn Saud captured Jeddah in 1925. He used it for some years as a royal residence when he was in Jeddah. In 2002 it was a “museum”. I remember it as “interesting” if not “outstanding” – its richly decorated interior is certainly better than its exterior and shows Turkish and other Middle Eastern influences of the period. It is pleasantly situated in front of a small square with a “historic” tree which, so rare are these, was pointed out to us!
The inscribed area is said to have 9 mosques (though ICOMOS notes that no information was provided on 7 of these whilst the other 2 are undergoing major renovations). As non-Muslims we were neither shown nor particularly recognized any. We also neither saw nor were shown any Ribats or Wakalas.
The Jeddah city wall was destroyed in 1947 and today only a few of the gates remain - heavily reconstructed and sometimes situated on ……. roundabouts!! As far as I understand it none of these figure in the inscribed site anyway
What does still remain of course is the old “urban layout” of al-Balid and we spent quite a lot of our free afternoon wandering the narrow twisting streets and up cul de sacs – but, apart from the Roshan areas, these lacked the atmosphere of many “Arabian” townscapes we have visited. Many of the buildings were poorly constructed modern concrete. The main “suqs” are excluded from the inscribed area and the only “shop” I remember gloried in the name of “Everything’s a Riyal"!!!
As to whether it should be inscribed – well I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia will ensure that the remaining 19th century buildings will be renovated and looked after to the highest standards. As ICOMOS identified, there is a lot of work to do – but Saudi isn’t short of money to do so! The result may not sit entirely comfortably with “western” standards of authenticity but the area does seem worth preserving among the headlong modernization of many Arabian cities even if it is a bit “museumified” in so doing. The site’s title rather misrepresents what is “on show” and the way in which it was inscribed departed from the “official” rigid, and possibly over-academic sequence of “document, preserve, manage and inscribe” by placing “inscription” near the start – as well as exemplifying the “political” workings of the WHC! Those who make it to Saudi Arabia will find aspects, both modern and historic, of much greater interest there than "Historic Jeddah".
- Full Name
- Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Makkah
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- Saudi Arabia
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- Urban landscape - Arabic and Middle Eastern
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2014 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS recommended Deferral, overturned by the WHC on basis of an Amendment by Turkey
includes former TWHS Al-Akhdar Palace and Al-Mi'mar Mosque both 1988
2010 Requested by State Party to not be examined
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