A walk through the streets of Old Jeddah (known as Al-Balad) is like being in an open-air architecture museum. All around one can witness one of the most emblematic aspects of its rich heritage: the Red sea architectural tradition. Instead of using cement, most buildings were uniquely made from special coral limestone extracted from the Red Sea called “Al-kashur” or “Al-Mangabi Stones”. The style is also characterized by the imposing tower houses decorated with closed balconies locally known as “rawashin”.
The word rawashin, plural of roshan, is originated from a Persian word meaning an elevated window which lets in plenty of light. It is believed that women could sit on those balconies and watch the passersby on the streets without being seen. Many of those buildings were erected by the city`s mercantile elites in the late 19th century, but some are over 400 years old.
The rawashin are commonly made of teak wood brought from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Each house has its own personal touch; nothing is the same, neither doors nor rawashin. According to the news outlet Alarabiya, the rawashin industry was established in Jeddah during the Abbasid period flourishing during the Ottoman era, when the closed balconies were widely used in different parts of the city.
The rawashin found its way to the facades of palaces and public buildings, as it is known for being effective at combating the heat by offering some ventilation. The wood can work as well as insulator. In the beginning, the master engravers lived in India, the East African coast, and Malaysia. Over time, craftsmen in Jeddah and Mecca learned the trade and began to make them locally. In recent years, the more traditional designs evolved to cope with the need to reach the upper floors and cover larger portions of buildings.
There are three main colors for rawashin: the natural brown, which is the most common; green, which started to be widely used since 1932, after the unification of Arabia, as people liked the idea of green as the symbol of peace, prosperity; blue, after the belief that one of the mayors went to one of the Mediterranean cities and liked the color so much he gave people permission to paint their houses blue.
According to historian Robert Kaplan, the rawashin in Jeddah are similar to the moucharabiehs of Tunisia, Egypt and the Levant. Their intricate carvings are superimposed on white facades.
These days, many architects and engineers deliberately choose to include rawashin in their designs to keep the tradition alive, and as homage to this form of Islamic architecture. Visitors can marvel at this architectural beauty preserved in magnificent constructions such as the 300-year-old Baeshen Palace.