The city of Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, exceeded in population only by the capital city of Riyadh. Because Riyadh is inland and Jeddah sits right on the beautiful Red Sea, Jeddah is considered to be the commerce center of the country.
Jeddah, like many cities around the world, has a really interesting mix of ultra-modern and absolutely ancient. An hour's drive from Mecca, Islam's holiest city, Jeddah is also an important gateway for travelers heading to Mecca for the Hajj, the pilgrimage that able-bodied Muslims are required to make at least once during their lives.
Jeddah's beginnings go all the way back to 2500 years ago when it was a sleepy fishing village. Things changed in 647 AD when the ruling caliph realized that because of its close proximity to the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Madinah, Jeddah made the perfect port for Muslims making the Hajj.
Less than a century ago, Jeddah was a completely walled in small city and was boarded up at night to keep its residents safe from outsiders. Its location was significant because of its close proximity to the holy city Mecca, the caravan routes, and its position on the Red Sea. There were four gates - north, east, south and west - where people could enter or leave the city. The walls have long since come down and Jeddah has grown to an important sprawling commercial metropolis. The famous gates have been replicated in various places around town as a nod to the city's history, and one of the gates is located in historic Old Jeddah, which is called Al-Balad.
Many of the buildings in Al-Balad, which means "the town," are centuries old and, surprisingly, are built of coral. Some are crumbling in disrepair and could be called ruins. Despite this, most of these buildings are still inhabited or used for business. The architecture is distinctly traditional Middle Eastern style, with the use of horizontal embedded wood beams, those unique wooden window coverings, airy balconies, and carved doors.
The window coverings are designed for privacy, but also allow for good air circulation. The designs on the window coverings are intricate and beautiful. Since this area of Jeddah was built long before automobiles were invented, many of the streets are so narrow that one car can barely squeak through. Making these streets feel even more claustrophobic is the fact that they are lined with buildings that are three or more stories high.
Interspersed between some of the ancient buildings are new glass and steel structures housing upscale shops offering the latest fashions from Paris or Milan, or large world renowned businesses, side by side with street vendors hawking fresh produce or shoes and the popular open air markets, called souks.
Al-Balad has been called a shopper's paradise, where one can find everything from beautiful traditional handmade crafts to the latest in electronics, or from exquisite gold and silver jewelry to popular aromatic oils and spices. Different souks are scattered around in every direction, many within walking distance.
An interesting legend that lends mystery and wonder to this area is the belief that Eve herself is buried in an unusually shaped tomb in the Ummana Hawa Cemetery, in the Al-Balad area of Old Jeddah. When Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise, Eve settled in Jeddah while Adam lived in Mecca and then other parts of the world. Miraculously this grave site has survived all these thousands of years and is a must-see stop for many religious pilgrims. Of course the actual facts are all up for debate since the Bible is the only evidence that Eve ever existed. It would be interesting after all this time to see what actually lies within the tomb.
In spite of its ancient decaying structures, Old Jeddah and Al-Balad continue to prosper, showcasing the diversity, the history, and the spirit that make Jeddah the significant Middle Eastern city that it is today.