Monday, December 1, 2008

Old Jeddah and the Al-Balad District

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.


  1. as always i so enjoy your informative and colorful posts. some day i hope to travel to this part of the world and enjoy all the marvelous sites and sounds.
    thank you for sharing.

  2. WOW! I wonder if this is where "shop till you drop"originated?
    The blue doors with all the calligraphy,is that a mosque?
    I love the part about Eve's tomb.Kind of like a what the bible doesn't tell you tour!

  3. Interesting post and gorgeous photos. I learned a lot browsing your blog, thanks for sharing.

  4. Very good information and photos, I like them all but especially the blue door, it's amazing!!!

  5. another great photos :) the colorful market...really enjoyed your blog

    thank you so much for sharing

  6. Hi Good Life in VA - Thanks so much for your nice comment - I appreciate it.

    Hi Andry - Thanks for stopping by. I tried looking at your blog, but how do I get it converted into English?

    Hi Always - Honestly, "Shop til you Drop" may have originated here - there is not much for women to do here but shop. You should see the malls here! The blue door is actually one of the doors to an old school that is still in operation - I never saw anything like it.

  7. Hi Jedediah - I'm so glad you stopped by and left a note - thanks!

    Hi JM - Thanks so much for your comment - I feel the same way about that blue door!

    Hi Anthonette - I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the blog - thanks for taking the time!

  8. You received an award! Check it out!

  9. This is all absolutely fascinating. The many colours of the city are at once surprising to me and delightful. I once worked as Production Assistant on an inflight film made for people travelling to Mecca! It was an educational film about health procedures. Many years ago! I am so pleased to have found your blog.

  10. Thank you again for sharing your adventures in SA. After I read your last blog, I can hardly wait to read your next one.

  11. Susie, I can't tell you how much I enjoy your blog!!! In my wildest dreams, I would have never imagined all the wonderful places that you have taken all of us to so eloquently...and of all parts of the world - Saudi...only you could have done it! And all your new cyber friends around the world!!! WOW!

  12. Gotta say I love reading your posts. You are so decriptive when you write that I feel I am standing next to you. Btw, I think the new header is great!

  13. Hello I have been reading through parts of your blog and I really enjoy all that you share with us.
    Thank you for taking the time to document a life that I would otherwise not know about.

  14. A building made of coral??? That's fascinating to me!! And the burial site of Eve? Susie, are you constantly amazed at all the things you learn about this country? It seems to be endless! Just fascinating!

  15. I would really like to read more about your experiences as an expat woman in a foreign country.

  16. A beautiful post like so many of your others.

  17. wishing you a very nice eid al adha a day afterwards. I love your pictures in your blog. Feeling such a nice calmness some how. Best wishes from a muslim convert in sweden :)

  18. Kudos !!! enjoyed reading your blog ,interesting posts. i like to be one of the blog lists in your blog mine is

  19. Hi Susie,
    Interesting fact that you moved to Arabia, that what you call really "a big advenbture"just wiondering why, but therefore i have to read more,,,,

    Welcome on my blog!here is my Reflection of nature:
    JoAnn's D Eyes/Holland

  20. Thanks for the visit and the comment. Those are some great views of the city.

  21. Hi UmmTravis - Thanks so much!! You made my day!

    Hi Lynn - Welcome to my blog and thanks for letting me know that you are enjoying it!!!

    Hi HC - I really appreciate your comment - thanks!

    Hi Cecilia - Thanks for letting me know how much you enjoy reading my blog - much appreciated.

  22. Hi Beth - So glad to hear that you like the new header. My son helped me design it - he's great with photoshop!

    Hi Suzanne - You are most welcome. Thanks for taking the time to let me know!

    Hi VelvetBrick - I'm not exactly sure if they crush the coral and somehow make a cement out of it or what, but that's what my BIL told me! The buildings here seem to last forever...

    Hi Caitlin - Stay as long as you like - my pleasure!

    Hi Chiara - Thank you so much!

    Salams Gwendolen - Hope your Eid was happy too - we went to Madinah and I'll be writing about it soon!

    Hi Pappu - Thanks!

  23. Hi JoAnn - Every time I step out the door here, life is like an adventure. It's so foreign and different than what my life used to be just a little over a year ago. Welcome to my blog!

    Hi David - Glad you stopped by!

    Hi Neal - Thanks!