Roger Harrison on Saudi Arabia

Jeddah, a bustling modern city and commercial hub, often called “The Bride of the Red Sea” has been an important city to civilisation in the Arabian Peninsula for 1500 years or so.

The second largest city in Saudi Arabia, with a population, and estimates vary widely, of nearly three million souls and covering an area of some 1600 sq km, it stretches along the shores from a busy industrial and port area in the south to expensive sea-shore residential areas in the north.

Until 1932, it was the capital of the Kingdom, Riyadh taking over in 1932 when the Al Saud dynasty finally became firmly established as the ruling family.

Quite apart from Jeddah’s importance as entrepot and commercial centre, a function that has sustained it for a couple of millennia, it has great importance as the ‘Gateway to Mecca’ some 60 miles by road to the east as it welcomes pilgrims by sea and air from all over the world for the yearly Hajj (around 2.5 million) and the Umra (Minor Pilgrimage) season that sees another 3 million or so.

The old city of Jeddah, Al Balad, gradually fell into disrepair as the new modern city developed. However, Jeddah had some very active local conservationists and engaged the attention of Prince Sultan bin Salman (the Saudi Spaceman) when he headed up the Saudi Commission for Tourism.

Al Balad, translated as "The Town”, was founded in the 7th century and historically served as the centre of Jeddah. Al-Balad's defensive walls were torn down in the 1940s. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Jeddah began to become wealthier due to the oil boom, many Jeddawis moved north, and the area fell into disrepair.

Over the last two decades or so, the combined efforts of Prince Sultan and the conservationists have halted the decline of Al Balad and seen a vigorous programme of conservation and restoration get underway.

In 2014, Balad became a UNESCO world Heritage site, the third in Saudi Arabia at the time, and finally achieved the status it richly deserved. 

Al Balad is truly a remarkable place. Still very much occupied, dotted with tiny shop units selling everything from formidable undergarments to spices by the sack load – a reminder of Jeddah’s historical importance in the spice trade.

The quarter is no quaint tourist trap; it is still very much populated and alive. Recently, it has become a focus for local artists and it is not surprising to see surreal bits or artwork, ranging from wildly decorated half-cars to enormous life-like insect sculptures mounted on walls and in the most unlikely places.

A warren of narrow streets with multi story buildings constructed of rough-hewn coral blocks and plastered, perhaps the most striking feature is the wide use of roshans – or rawashin.

These are latticework wooden structures that cover walls and windows, allowing a free flow of cooling air into the buildings the summer and invisibility of the occupants to passers-by. Many have been carefully refurbished and they form a striking feature, the tall houses referred to locally as ‘Jeddah Towers’.

Another distinctive feature of the area is the beautifully executed plasterwork, said to be created by Moroccan labourers. Whatever the truth, it adds wonderful detail to the buildings and is very well maintained.

And cats. Over the last decade or so, the iconic street cats of Al Balad have both become more numerous and rather fitter looking. They roam the streets casually and in no fear, foraging and eating food left out for them.

The Islamic prophet Muhammad always loved cats. His favourite feline of all was Muezza. Muhammad was so attached to her, he'd let the cat sit on his lap while he gave his sermons.

“A good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being” he is reported to have said, and “a love of cats is an aspect of faith”; according to other hadiths (a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad) he prohibited the persecution and killing of cats.

This beautifully preserved traditional building was built over nine years from 1872 to 1881 for Omar Nasseef Efendi, member of a wealthy merchant family and, governor of Jeddah at the time.

When Abdulaziz Al Saud occupied the city in December 1925 after the siege of Jeddah he occupied the Bayt Nasseef. He used it as royal residence and received guests here and it became a sort of social salon for consuls and merchants.

The house belonged to the Nasseef family until 1975, when Muhammad Nasseef converted it into a private library that eventually accumulated 16,000 books, which could anyone visiting him could read.

The local cognomen of the house is, "The House with the Tree" because it was the only house in Al Balad that had one. Obviously, growing a tree, a Neem tree, was a rare thing because of the scarcity of water. It is quite possibly the oldest tree in Jeddah.

The Nasseef house has 106 rooms some contain remarkable artwork. An eclectic mix of works on wood, tiles as well as Arabic calligraphy. The design style is said to be Ottoman Turkish.

The house has an irregular plan of rectangular rooms arranged around a central hall. The main entrance to the house is from the north, while there is a second entrance from the west, that was used by the women.

Two large rawashin occupy the front facade above each other, connecting the two levels above the main door with their large wooden structure.

A motif of grouping elements in threes is found often in the house. This may be a group of three windows or a central doorway with a window or niche on each side. Most official rooms have a symmetrical design with niches on the walls may correspond to windows or doors on opposite walls.

The main stairway is fairly wide and the steps are very flat, nothing much more than a ramp with spaced cross beams. This is said to have allowed camels to carry provisions to the kitchen on the fifth floor. Even if true, it would have been a real challenge to bend a camel round the tight corners – perhaps donkeys were used instead!

It is well worth tarrying a while in Al Balad, especially on a Friday evening after prayers, when people stroll, mingle and examine the wares for sale. There is an atmosphere of convivial peace and goodwill that pervades the atmosphere and to simply sit on the steps of the Nasseef house and absorb it is both a pleasure and a learning experience about life in the Saudi seldom seen.

Previous story Next story

Roger Harrison on Saudi Arabia was published on 26 May 2020