Saudi Arabia:
Coral Houses of Jeddah's Old Town


What? 
A magnificent pile towers over the souk. 

The old town of Saudi Arabia's commercial hub, Jeddah, built out of coral blocks and wood. 
If 1001 nights were set in a city, this is what it would look like. 

Why visit? 
Because we're lucky it's still there! Seriously. 

Few Saudis want to live in these beautiful traditional buildings, as they lack the mod-cons that Saudi families have become used to. 

Some half-hearted attempts have been made to preserve the neighbourhood, but not enough. Come visit before the whole lot gets torn down to build another soulless shopping mall. 

Where? 
Near the port area of Jeddah, on the Red Sea. Map


SAUDIS TEND NOT to dwell too much on the past. Two generations ago, they were a nation of mostly nomads tending their camels in the desert, subsisting on a diet of dates and camel milk. These days, they tend to their fleet of gas-guzzling cars and live on a diet of American-style fast food. Or so it seems. 

Saudi society culture has little appreciation for remnants of the not-so-good old days, and puritan religious views support destruction of many historical buildings in nearby Mecca and other places. 

Even back in the desert-dwelling days there were settlements, and Jeddah was one of them. Being a port and trading center on the Red Sea, it was a window onto the world and to this day the city has a reputation for being open and liberal (well, by Saudi standards that is.)

Old Jeddah, known as Al Balad, is a tightly packed area of tall houses, mostly built from blocks of coral, a material that was easily available just off the shore, under the water. 
Tight, narrow streets- hey, at least there's lots of shade!
A few (really, a tiny few) houses have been restored. This one houses a museum.  
But most houses are dying a slow death....
These were the houses of rich merchants, flush with money from the trade the port brought, and the buildings housed several generations under one roof. As the family expanded, another set of rooms could be added, and some of them retain an organic appearance, having grown over time. 

One of the defining features of these houses are the wooden windows with their delicate carved screens, reminiscent of the jali screens of Rajasthan in India (which were influenced by Mughal and hence Muslim architecture- the feature worked equally well in both countries.)
It looks like a heritage hotel in Rajasthan, but it's a slum in Jeddah. 
These wooden screens provide natural air conditioning- they protrude out into the street, catching the breeze and allowing the air to circulate. At the same time, they provide shade and privacy, allowing the women to peek out without being seen.

A second feature are the elaborately carved doors and decorated doorways.  The doorways of 1001 nights, full of floral patterns and hallucinating detail.
Could be a 19th century Parisian mansion but it is, again, a slum in Jeddah. 
The beauty of the doorway is there for all to see. The beauty of the lady is well-hidden. 
In spite of the beauty of these dwellings, Saudis don't want to live here, as, as somebody wrote on Wikipedia, 'Al-Balad has insufficient parking space for large cars. Its stores do not sell expensive designer clothing.' That's probably not far from the truth, and these days 95% of Al Balad's population consists of foreigners, recent immigrants hoping to earn some petro-dollars and looking for cheap housing until they hit a lucky break.

Getting there: 
Al Balad is best explored by walking. Maps are notoriously scarce in Saudi Arabia- the Red Sea Palace hotel makes a good landmark (as well as a decent place to stay.) The old town starts right behind it. 

Useful links:
Discovering Old Jeddah on Saudicaves.com
Some great pictures at the PBase Photo Gallery of Helen Betts

4 comments:

  1. love the doorways and intricate carvings... a fascinating place that I did not know about. GRAZIE.

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  2. Prego, Mary Jane. Yes, whatever one may think of it, Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country, and one that not many Westerners get a chance to visit.

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  3. Informative post! I am flying to Ethiopia from the US in August and my flight stops in Jeddah. How were you able to get a visa to visit the old town?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Anon, pls check with the KSA Embassy of your home country. Muslims can usually obtain Haj and other religious visas- others typically enter on business visas. Good luck!

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