Although I was quite looking forward to visiting Al Balad, the historic section of Jeddah, Saudia Arabia, I was already slightly disappointed before my first visit. Due to various reasons which I will not delve into here (for starters, check out this link), much of Al Balad had been destroyed within the past century. That said, although this part of Jeddah was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014- though, which place isn’t these days? – the methods by which numerous buildings are now being restored are highly dubious.
If you’re curious about a brief history of Jeddah/Al Balad, it was roughly in the mid-600s AD when this Red Sea port became prominent. Around that time, it is believed that Islam‘s influence began to spread; indeed, as Jeddah was the closest port to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, traders, pilgrims, and merchants from all over Asia, Africa, and other regions began to settle in what is now Al Balad.
The fierce sun and heat, as well as rapidly growing populations caused buildings to be constructed very close together, as if to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Unique windows called roshan, which provided both privacy and air circulation, were a typical design of the time. Furthermore, as Jeddah’s Red Sea location incidentally played host to a vast coral reef, much of the masonry in Al Balad counts coral as its main ingredient.
You can also find remnants of city gates and walls, from when Jeddawis had to defend their city from potential attacks by the Mamluks and the Portuguese.
As you may have guessed, during the day it’s hot year-round in Jeddah. So, when I made it to Al Balad at around 14:30 on a Saturday afternoon (the weekend here is Friday-Saturday), it was quite empty. In other words, excellent for photographing buildings, but yep, it’s a scorcher. Come 17:00 or better yet, 21:00, and it’s zakhma, or packed with people and wares.
Fancy a visit to Al Balad? Try the visa-free version first.