Said to be the final resting place of Eve, the mother of mankind, Jeddah is an exciting, multicultural, modern city with a beating ancient heart fuelled by the people of the many nations she spawned.
As temperatures hot enough to fry an egg on a car bonnet begin to dissipate with the orange setting sun, the air is slowly filled with the symphony of a hundred muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. The shutters of local shops come down, and street traders cover their wares and head for the nearest mosque,joined by the millions of ajnabi – foreigners – both old and new, who keep modern Jeddah moving.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s largest port city has been welcoming pious Muslims from all over the world since the advent of Islam.
Most of the houses here are made of reed. There are also inns of stone and mud with palm-frond lean-tos serving as upper chambers, beneath which people sleep at night to escape the heat… The many ancient remains in town attest to its great age. Traces of prehistoric walls still rise around it, and there is one place with an old and lofty dome which is said to mark the house of the Eve, humanity’s mother, in the days when she was on her way to Mecca…
— Ibn Jubayr
The 12th-century Muslim travel writer Ibn Jubayr is just one of the long list of illustrious believers to have passed through Jeddah’s ancient streets. Globetrotter Ibn Battuta came in 1326 and, more recently, Malcolm X visited in 1964, the latter’s worldview permanently altered by the racial diversity he would encounter here.
The city’s name means ‘Grandmother’ in Arabic, alluding to the tomb of Eve supposedly in the old town, now closed to the public. Also known as the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’, Jeddah sits along ancient trade routes and was welcoming visitors even before Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan made it the offcial sea port for the holy city of Mecca in 647CE.
“I love Jeddah because of how multicultural it is. You can meet people from every corner of the globe here,” explains Mohammed Ma’tar, a student of aeronautical engineering at the city’s King Abdul Aziz University. He is right; unlike Mecca and Medina, Jeddah is accessible to all, even non-Muslims.
“The white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon,” wrote T. E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ at the turn of the 19th century.
In those days, visitors came by camel or sea. Many stayed, giving Jeddah its famous multicultural flavour.
“They call us the ‘the expulsion of the sea’, a wonderful mix of cultures the sea has thrown up here in Jeddah,” laughs Ma’tar.
A migrant city
“My father’s ancestors came here from Africa a long time ago. They stayed and were given citizenship when the kingdom was formed.” Ma’tar is the result of ancient migration, but today Jeddah is run by the new migrants, such as the Bangladeshis who keep its roads clean and the almost exclusively Pakistani cab drivers.
“It’s Urdu not Arabic you need to get around Jeddah,” jokes Ma’tar.
Jeddah’s children are taught English by teachers from England, Australia and the USA, and if they get ill it is an Egyptian, Syrian or Indian doctor who treats them. A melting-pot of immigrants, Jeddah’s distinct flavour has made it the kingdom’s cultural capital.
Saudi Arabia’s European and Asian Film Festivals are held here, and last February Jeddah hosted the country’s first ever Comic-Con. It is also home to one of the kingdom’s largest book fairs. There is even a festival to celebrate the city’s unique cultural heritage, called Atareek, where this year local artist Abdullah Al-Othman covered a 200-year-old building in tin foil – a reminder to Jeddah’s residents to cherish their stunning ancient heritage.
Jeddah’s beating ‘old heart’
Unique to the world, and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the beautiful old houses that hang precariously above Al-Balad, Jeddah’s Old Town, were built using coral from the Red Sea. These fragile old monuments, some as tall as five storeys, date mostly from the early 20th century, though their style is much older. A wander through the narrow alleyways, designed to create shade from the blistering desert sun, reveals intricate brown and green rawashan (balconies) on the now faded whitewashed walls. The dense latticework lets cool air in but keeps the sun and prying eyes out. These are the finest examples of Red Sea coral architecture anywhere in the world.
Aside from that, with a newly minted status bestowed by UNESCO status and statements like Al-Othman’s have prompted authorities to act. Evidence of this can be found close to the Old Town’s North Gate. Extensively renovated, the Naseef House, with its multitude of ornate balconies, was once home to the founder of modern Saudi Arabia (King Abdul Aziz stayed here following his conquest in 1925) – the cynics say this is the real reason for the renovation. Before the king, the Naseef House was home to Jeddah’s richest merchant family, and its most famous tree. As recently as the 1920s, the tree next to the Naseef House was the only tree in Jeddah, with locals referring to it as the ‘House of the Tree’. The building’s other stunning feature is its rooftop terrace, offering unparalleled views across Al-Balad.
Another rescued relic is the nearby Al-Shafi’i Mosque, named after the classical theologian. An example of Egyptian Fatimid architecture, the mosque has a stunning green dome, and recent renovations have revealed the mosque’s mehrab may date back to the time of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Islam’s second caliph.
None of these, however, quite evoke romantic Arabia like the kingdom’s largest traditional bazaar, and Jeddah’s ancient beating heart, the Souq Al Alawi. A walk through this age-old market is an assault on the senses, as street hawkers shout their wares in high-pitched voices whilst the gentle waft of exotic spices like myrrh and cinnamon invade your nostrils and a hundred different tongues wag all at once.
Skyscrapers, flash cars and global cuisine
“The corniche is where everyone loves to hang out. We drive down there on weekends after meeting up at Tahliyah.”
Ma’tar’s heritage may be ancient Jeddah, but his low-slung Armani denims and expensive Ray-Ban shades are not. You can’t buy such genuine designer gear in Al-Balad. For that, you have to head to Tahliyah Street, where the residents are Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. This is where Ma’tar meets his friends at weekends. They all drive in from wealthy suburbs in customised Chevvies and Audis, before – like a scene out of Hollywood serial The Fast and the Furious – they race each other down to the coast and the palm-tree boulevards of the corniche.
Jeddah’s heat means the city’s social scene is nocturnal. It is after the sun sets that the beaches come alive here. Saudi children play on swings and ride donkeys in the moonlight, watched over by nannies, whilst their parents recline on large rugs to enjoy the cool ocean breeze.
Behind them is a city of skyscrapers, five-star hotels and a cuisine as globally diverse as its immigrant community. Whether it is fine French cuisine, South Indian curry or local specialities like kabsah, modern Jeddah brims with culinary choice.
It’s not easy to get into Jeddah: tourist visas are rare and most visitors instead arrive on business, work or pilgrimage visas. But those who persevere will discover a vibrant, modern city with a breathtaking historical heritage and a thriving cultural scene.