An Enchanting Jewel on the Red Sea

© 2005 by John and Susy Pint - Updated June 2, 2016

by Susana Ibarra de Pint 


       Anybody visiting Jeddah would be impressed by what the city has become today: a magnificent and modern metropolis where people can admire amazing homes, buildings and palaces, especially along lovely streets such as Al Malek Road (the King's Highway) or Sultan Street. They would be impressed as well by the incredible variety of sculptures and monuments built right down the middle of many boulevards or proudly identifying each roundabout in the city in a unique way. What a surprise it is to discover that their creators are  often famous artists like Henry Moore or Joan Miró! With about 1,500,000 inhabitants, Jeddah continues a long history as a major commercial center in the Arabian Peninsula. Ever since 646 AD (26 H), Jeddah has also been the official port of the Holy cities of Makkah and Medina. With a population currently at 3.4 million people, Jeddah is an important commerical hub in Saudi Arabia. Jeddah is approximately 100 kilometers away from Mecca,  another famous Saudi city and it will take you about one hour and nine minutes to drive there.

    Jeddah's past, too, is maybe one of the most fascinating of its features and it goes as far back as the very beginning of the human race, according to an old tradition. One of the meanings of the name of the city itself (spelled "Jadda") is grandmother, which refers to the mother of mankind, Eve.      Tradition says that after Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, Eve came to live in Jeddah and, from time to time, she visited Adam in Makkah or in Mina. This tradition also recounts that after Eve's death, she was buried in Jeddah, where her tomb withstood the ravages of the ages up until only half a century ago when it could still be seen from Bab Medina --one of the three main gates which surrounded the town up until 1947. In that year the wall was  demolished in order to expand the size of the rapidly growing city. Since Eve's Graveyard --as it was known-- had been venerated for so many centuries, people still stop and stare in awe at the place where the tomb used to be.  

     Historians who are not quite so enthusiastic about this particular tradition, however, trace Jeddah's existence to 2,500 years ago, when it was only a little village, home of the Quda'a tribe which survived on the great variety of fish they could find in the Red Sea. The village happened to be located in such a strategic and convenient place that it soon grew into a center of commerce which facilitated trade between the Mediterranean and the Eastern countries. Eventually, Jeddah acquired an even greater importance when Caliph Othman bin Affan declared it the official port of the Holy Cities. This, in fact, marked a turning point in Jeddah's future not only because of new possibilities for commerce but also because of the arrival of pilgrims coming from all over the world, many of whom took residence in the city.

     The construction of the wall took place in order to protect Jeddah against the aggressors of that time, such as the Portuguese who, in 1516 AD, laid siege to the city for three months. But, in spite of all, Jeddah continued growing in importance and by 1825 --now under the control of the Ottomans-- began receiving its first diplomatic representatives from Europe (France and Britain). For that reason, it used to be called Bilad al Kanasil (The City of Consulates). It was also known as al-Balad  or just Balad, a name which it still keeps today along with "Old Jeddah."




     My first encounter with Balad is something I will never forget. It was during a vacation in 1995 when I arrived in Jeddah along with my husband John and two French friends, after a very long and indirect drive from Riyadh.  

     We arrived late in the afternoon and were cruising along the streets and boulevards, fascinated by a place which was new to us. Then, just by chance, we came across a section of the city which was completely different from what we had just seen, and we stopped, dumbfounded. We parked the car and started walking around this curious place, which had extremely narrow streets with houses that were three, four or even five stories high.  

     Some of the buildings looked very old and almost ready to fall apart but many had been renovated or just well maintained and these were absolutely beautiful. "How were these venerable houses made?" I asked myself. With their horizontally embedded wooden beams they looked like gigantic birthday cakes divided by layers of chocolate filling! The material used to construct them became a real mystery too: if you touched the surface, it was not smooth, and if you looked close, you could see little pieces of coral and even complete sea shells. And all of us were even more fascinated when we began to examine the overhanging balconies made of wood which covered the windows. [    oj6.   ]Some of them were really big and went all the way up to the roof as if they were covering immense openings in the building and all of them were carved in such a delicate and intricate way that, rather than carved, they looked as if they had been crocheted. Many of them showed the natural color of the wood but others were gray or different shades of green or blue and some were dark brown. The doors and the carvings around them were absolutely beautiful, too. What an incredible job had been done by the artisans who created such masterpieces!  

     "Wow! ... Where in the world are we?" We asked ourselves. It was as if, suddenly, we had been transported to another dimension and had become part of a fairy tale taking place hundreds of years in the past. "Maybe we'll meet Aladdin and his magic lamp around one of these corners," we joked.

     We didn't meet Aladdin but we did meet what seemed to be the friendliest people in the country who kept inviting us to sit with them to smoke a shisha (water pipe), or to have a cup of tea or even to eat with them. As we were walking in a lovely little plaza, a group of children came to us and for some reason decided they all wanted to give me a hug -- which they did! What a strange and wonderful feeling!  

     Later on, as we were sitting on a bench placed right on the street for passersby to take a rest, a sweet old Saudi man came to sit with us. He was right next to one of our French friends who, inspired by the pleasant spirit of the local people, decided to try carrying on a conversation with the old man, even though the two of them didn't share a common language. For ten minutes, they both waved and gesticulated in the air and somehow managed to have a long talk using just the one word kabir which means big. This amazing exchange culminated in the old gentleman getting off the bench, brandishing an imaginary sword and dancing for us. It was the very first time we saw the ardah performed and I doubt I'll ever see anyone outdo that old man in enthusiasm.

     We were fascinated as well when we came to the souq  which was crowded with people. Obviously, many of them were from African countries and they wore their colorful national garb. A section of the souq was covered and although many of the items for sale were the same as what you find elsewhere, it was interesting to come upon vendors sitting on the ground and selling things which we had never seen before, like the miswaak, a thin stick which serves as a toothbrush. Another vendor was surrounded by all kinds of baskets, brooms and other objects made of wicker, and everywhere the air was filled with the aroma of spices and incense.

     The next morning we couldn't wait to go back to that same remarkable place to take pictures and by then, of course, we had learned its name: Balad.


     The same year (1995), my husband and I returned to our home in Mexico, but I always dreamt about coming back someday to explore al-Balad more deeply and learn all I could about it. During many years of traveling and living in different countries this unique spot always remained at the top of my list of fascinating places.

     Luckily, in 1997 my husband was offered a contract to work here and the first thing I wanted to do was to return to Balad. There, we met Engineer Sami Nawar, the director of the Historic Area Preservation Department, a personne extraordinaire who is not only very knowledgeable but also very much in love with his job and eager to share his knowledge with others. As he talks to you or answers your questions, Mr. Nawar always has a smile on his face and more than one joke to keep you laughing and somehow he never seems to be tired or in a hurry.

     First, Mr. Nawar confirmed our observations about the materials used to construct the houses in al-Balad. The blocks contained sea shells and coral because they had been quarried right from the reef just off the sea shore. The blocks were then cemented together with a mortar made of clay found at the bottom of the al-Manqabah lagoon. The reason for the insertion of the beams (taglil) was to give better support to the construction and to permit the easy replacement of a bad section of the walls with new coral blocks. "It's just as easy as changing a tire," says Mr. Nawar. The timber used for making the beams was brought by ship from Africa and Indonesia.

     Considering the material the buildings are made of, they seemed to us rather frail and we suspected they might have a tendency to collapse, especially because they're so tall.

     When we asked Mr. Nawar about this, he clarified everything. First, he admitted that before the right technology was found, there were buildings which occasionally collapsed, but once they found the right construction technique, there were no more problems. "As you see, the walls are thick and strong. A building may collapse only if it is too old and nobody cares about and maintains it," he explained.

     "But why are the buildings so tall," we asked. In short order, we discovered there were several good reasons for this. One of them was the summer heat: relaxing atop a high roof, people could find extra comfort from the gusts of an evening breeze. Another reason is the shade the buildings produce, which is much appreciated by the people walking on the streets especially, of course, during the hot months of the year.

      The balconies, too, had a lot more to contribute to the buildings than their beauty. Besides helping to block the sunshine, they were designed to catch the breeze which is then transformed into air currents moving throughout the house, providing good ventilation and comfort, again, a real necessity during the hottest part of the summer. Moreover, the wood was carved in such a way that it was easy to look outside while remaining hidden from public view.

     Some of the balconies, the rawashin  (singular: roshan) had a very particular use because the part that juts out over the street was used as an extension of the room and was filled with comfortable cushions where people could sit directly in the path of the evening breeze. The ones with beautiful designs were called mushrabiyah and the ones resembling simple, practical grills used as windows are called shish. The latter were most commonly used on the sides of the houses.


     These houses were constructed for the rich merchants and some are as many as three or four hundred years old, mostly worked on by artisans who had come as pilgrims and for one reason or another, didn't go back to their homelands. In those days, camel caravans were the only means of transporting goods by land. Now, we might imagine that it was very romantic to be in a caravan slowly winding its way among the dunes of the big deserts and then climbing high into the hard, volcanic mountains. In reality, however, it was extremely difficult and dangerous. If thirst and sandstorms didn't do you in, the bedouin raiders were always near at hand, eager to  get their hands on the precious merchandise which included spices, frankincense, plants for producing medicine, etc. In the city of Jeddah itself, life was rather harsh too because of the absence of essential commodities such as drinkable water which had to be brought to the city by donkey or by camel from Wadi Fatima which is 40 kilometers away. A much less reliable source of water was that which could be collected in cisterns from the scarce rains. Recently, an underground filtration gallery (qanat) was discovered in the heart of Balad. This tunnel brought water to the city from the nearby mountain ranges. The qanat was used up until about 112 years ago and is about 500 years old. It is said to have played a key role in withstanding the Portuguese siege of 1516. The most recent source of water comes from desalination plants.



     One of Balad's most magnificent ancient mansions, which has recently been renovated, is Bayt Nassif (Nassif House), now considered a symbol of Jeddah's rich past. Today, it is a cultural center where you can attend special exhibits or lectures given by knowledgeable people like Mr. Sami Nawar. Going from one room to another one can also learn a lot about what the interior of one of these houses was like in bygone days. Something which I found especially interesting was that they used trained camels to go up and down the five floors of the building carrying goods, especially to the kitchen on the fourth floor. The stairway is, in reality, a ramp with spaced crossbeams, convenient for both man and beast to walk on.

     Bayt Nassif has 106 rooms and the art work some of the rooms contain is admirable. Besides works on wood, you can see others on tiles as well as Arabic calligraphy.

     There is an interesting anecdote related to how large and complicated this building is: On one occasion, a thief entered the house, not with good intentions, of course, but in the course of his wanderings, he realized that he was completely lost. He spent so much time trying to find his way out that he eventually lost his nerve and when someone finally came across him, he immediately surrendered, begging to be arrested!

     People used to recognize Bayt Nassif as "The House with the Tree" because it was the only house in Balad that had one. Obviously, growing a tree was not an easy task because of the scarcity of water. This hardy survivor is a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) and is practically as old as the house.

     The construction of Nassif House began in 1872 and it was finished by 1881 for Sheikh Omar Effendi Nassif, then governor of Jeddah. This house belonged to the Nassif family until 1975. One of the heirs, Sheikh Muhammad, turned Bayt Nassif into a private library that eventually accumulated 16,000 books, which could be read by anyone visiting him. Today these books belong to the Abdul Aziz University Library.

      Although nowadays one can enjoy all the commodities of modern life, it's still a very exciting experience to wander through Balad, admiring the houses, both old and renovated, perhaps attracted by the sight of a beautifully carved door or an ornate balcony and eventually discovering that you are lost. But getting lost among streets with such history, such beauty and such charm may well be remembered among the most pleasant mistakes of your life.


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