About sixty kilometers from Mecca, the holiest city in the Muslim world, lies Jeddah, a city bustling with life and high-rise buildings. Its old town, Al-Balad, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2014, also encapsulates this enigmatic contrast, with both ancient and modern elements.
Al-Balad has had a symbolic role as a gate to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims reaching Arabia by boat since the 7th century when the 3rd Caliph Uthman ibn Affan made it the official port of Mecca. This association with the Muslim annual pilgrimage (Hajj) gave Al-Balad a diverse population with Muslims from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The old town has street names such as Al-Hard, which means turmeric. Several spices from all over the world, especially from India, came to Jeddah via the Silk Road. They were transported, either by caravan along the Arab world, or by ship to other remote destinations.
We have an international cuisine influenced by all the pilgrims who came and passed on their recipes to us.Abir Abusulayman, a famous local tour guide
Over the years, Jeddah’s Al-Balad developed into a thriving multicultural centre, characterized by a distinctive architectural tradition, including tower houses built in the late 19th century by the city’s mercantile elites. They blended Red Sea coastal coral building traditions with influences and crafts from along the trade routes. There are also lower coral stone houses, mosques, souks and small public squares. Several the afore mentioned ancient houses continue to be praised for their distinctive designs and the names of ancient families.
Some examples include Nasseef House, the first orientally designed Arabic house in Jeddah, which has been used for many years as a temporary residence for kings and scholars. The construction of Nasseef House on old Jeddah’s main street, Suq al-Alawi, began in 1872 and it was finished by 1881 for Omar Nasseef Efendi, member of a wealthy merchant family and, governor of Jeddah at the time.
Al-Balad reflects the final flourishing of the Indian Ocean sea trade after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the introduction of steamboats that linked Europe with India and Asia, which brought significant benefits to many merchants who built luxurious houses.
The increase in the number of vessels allowed many more pilgrims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, which in turn resulted in an expansion in the provision of accommodation for these visitors. Al-Balad was the commercial center of Jeddah before the oil boom of the 1970s.
In the late afternoon, once the temperatures have gone down, life remerges in the streets of the Al-Balad, offering a new vista to Jeddah’s old town.