Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tour of Al-Balad

I recently had the pleasure of being part of an organized group tour of Al-Balad, the oldest historic part of Jeddah, which is a must see for any visitor to the area for its architectural delights, colorful souks, and fascinating history. We met in the late afternoon one February day outside the landmark Naseef House, which is perhaps the most famous as well as the youngest structure in this area. The group tour was organized by the International Muslims in Jeddah and I’m estimating that there were between 50-60 expats in attendance, a diverse mix of different nationalities, and at least a dozen extremely well-behaved children tagging along.

Our tour guide was Mr. Sami Nawaf, a lively, interesting, and knowledgeable fellow, who himself grew up in Al Balad. An engineer and the Director of the Historic Area Preservation Department, Sami is able to provide personal firsthand accounts of what life was like in Jeddah, before the big oil boom of the 1970s changed it into a sprawling modern city that it is today.

Our group strolled through the narrow winding streets, many of them closed to traffic, with Sami pointing out architectural details or historical tidbits which brought this ancient place to life. Sami pointed out the once buried 500 year old aqueduct which was excavated a few years ago and supplied fresh water to the fishing village of Jeddah from nearby mountains.

One of the most beautiful and interesting features of Al Balad is the architectural feature of the wooden latticed window coverings called rawasheen, which appears on just about every building in Al Balad, affording privacy as well as air movement inside for the inhabitants of the dwellings.

Many are painted brown or blue, and a few are painted green. Some are falling apart and others have been replaced. Many buildings have been destroyed by fire too, due to faulty electrical hookups, and indeed, dozens of unsightly and dangerous electrical wires can be seen running everywhere.

On some of the crumbling buildings which are hundreds of years old, it was easy to see the methods of construction, but the sad truth is that much of this historic area of Jeddah is decaying and not much is being done to preserve it. The structures are all made from local materials abundant in the area – coral, seashells, and clay – except for the wood which was imported from places like Africa and Indonesia. In fact the coral and seashell bricks are actually visible in some of the decaying walls that are now exposed. Most of the buildings in this area were built several stories high, which afforded shade to people walking down on the narrow streets below, and also allowed the buildings inhabitants to go up to the rooftops and enjoy the cooler breezes coming off the Red Sea. Many of these huge old homes were built for wealthy merchants by laborers and artisans who came to Saudi Arabia from foreign lands for the religious pilgrimage called the Hajj and ended up just staying to live here.

Our group returned back to Naseef House and climbed the several flights of stairs up to the rooftop, just in time for us to be treated to a stunning sunset and to hear the chorus of the calls to prayers by the 36 neighboring mosques. I had never heard anything quite like this before. Adhans from every direction, each of them calling for the prayers in their own unique style - it was amazing!

We watched as the lights of the city began to glow below from our perch which gave us a bird’s eye panoramic view, and the pink and blue hues of the sky deepened with every passing minute. It was a magical experience. I felt fortunate to have been a part of this group because every time I have been down to Al Balad, the Naseef House has been closed, so I was extremely happy that I finally got to go inside. But to be on the rooftop at sundown and hear the Adhans' calls for the Maghreb prayer was such a special treat that I could have never imagined an experience like that.

On the highest part of the rooftop was an open air porch with Bedouin style cushions around the perimeter for seating and red carpets covering the floor. It was here that we were served tea and bottled water and given a chance to relax and visit with the other members of the group. We then made our way back down the wide stairways - built wide enough to accommodate a camel carrying supplies up to the top floors - exploring various rooms at the different levels, until we reached the main floor, where we all gathered for a delightful and informative lecture given by Sami, complete with a fascinating slide show. It was such a pleasure to be part of this warm and friendly group, and I look forward to our next outing.

Old Jeddah, Al-Balad: To see more photos of this area, please visit my slideshow of Al-Balad.


  1. What a fabulous tour! I love the beautiful wood over the windows.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. It reminded me of the slide shows hosted and narrated by visitors to my local scout group when I was a kid. Made me feel as though for a short time I was actually there. Your slide show on the Photobucket link is a must see part of this “Susie’s Day Out”

  3. Thankyou for a small look into this old city.I really liked the outdoor attachments.If only I were an arabian male I would love to explore your city and its ways

  4. Beautiful pictures and interesting narration. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience with us. I am curious though as to rather this was a mixed group of men and women. It sounds like your tour leader was a man. Having read on your site before about the strict separation of the sexes in KSA I'm wondering how this group was structured.

  5. Oh Susie!,I wish I could have been there.Thank you so much for sharing.The rooftop sunset and call to prayer sound almost other worldly.
    How very lucky you are.

  6. With the earthquakes lately, I fear for those in Al- Balad who live in the very old, poorly constructed buildings.

    Similar to Iran, any large earthquake will be devastating to human lives.

    ~Another Anonymous

  7. I had the great pleasure of touring the area a couple weeks ago with my good friend and host Abdullah, who grew up in Jeddah. One thing both Abdullah and I wondered about architecturally is the method of stone and wood beam construction on many buildings. It appears that the wood beams are interlaced (for want of a better term) horizontally, much like builders used mortar. But there's no evidence of mortar and the extremely heavy stone blocks weigh down on the beams, supporting several stories above.

    Does anyone know what the design principle for this is? Is it a method of allowing for building "settling" over time perhaps?

    In the meantime, I hope I can get my $500 back from the folks who tried to embezzle your e-mail account. (Just kidding...I only sent them 50 SR.)

  8. Fantastic pictures, Susie! I enjoyed the tour very much.

  9. Thanks for supplying me with a word for one of my favorite architectural details: these rawasheen are gorgeous!

  10. The photos are amazing! I love the rustic look in your third picture and the narrations that came with every photo. Thank you so much for sharing these! :)

  11. I am so jealous! I will have to look up this tour the next time I come to Jeddah - This is my favorite part of Jeddah - their is an essense there that I never felt anywhere else before - Susie - did you get a chance to learn how old those building are - especially the really old ones in the heart of the street markets- you mentioned a few hundred years - is it like 200 or 400 - I was curious to learn when they are built my guess is 18th century - am I right?

  12. Also - one small tidbit about this area of Jeddah - it is believed that EVE was buried here - hence the meaning of Jeddah - Grandmother

  13. I really enjoyed this tour, and the wondeful photos. I like the new (dual-blog purpose) watermark too.