How art, architecture and culture are keeping the past alive in Jeddah

As efforts to restore Al-Balad, Jeddah’s historical district, take hold, we get an exclusive peek at how art and culture are taking centre stage

Words Emma Thompson & Lyn Hughes | Photographs William Gray

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Writer Emma Thomson fits right in

Writer Emma Thomson fits right in

The designs of the old houses reflect the lives of those who lived in them, with many having doubled as both residential and commercial properties

The designs of the old houses reflect the lives of those who lived in them, with many having doubled as both residential and commercial properties

A typical street scene in the Old Town

A typical street scene in the Old Town

Al-Balad: Regenerating the past

Restoring Jeddah’s historic district offers not just a connection to another time for visitors, but a vital link for a local community that still considers it very much a part of the present

Jeddah’s history as a thriving port enabled generations of wealthy merchants to build elaborate townhouses that rose ever higher, as space in the Old Town, which was walled until 1947, was tight (Alamy)

Jeddah’s history as a thriving port enabled generations of wealthy merchants to build elaborate townhouses that rose ever higher, as space in the Old Town, which was walled until 1947, was tight (Alamy)

When I tipped my head to the side, I could almost hear the clop of camels’ hooves on the cobblestones, their saddle bags bulging with cloves, pepper and ginger from the Far East; porcelain, jade and silk from China; and cardamon, cumin and turmeric from India, all unloaded from dhows that had sailed up the long barrel of the Red Sea. Some of them would have been led out into the desert by traders, others marched upstairs and into the kitchens of coral-stone mansions so tall that they carved the sky into thin blues lanes. Today, the dromedaries may have disappeared from the streets, but you can still buy spices in the souks, hear the call to prayer issuing from candle-like minarets and step inside the ancient homes of Al-Balad, Jeddah’s UNESCO-listed Old Town.

Jeddah started life as a modest fishing village, but when the third Caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, visited in 624 AD to swim in its waters and pray on its soil, he declared it the main entry port to Makkah (Mecca) and its fortunes changed almost overnight. Devotees travelling for Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) flocked through the city walls – which were only torn down in 1947 – and the town became a major stopping point on the silk, spice, coffee and incense trade routes.

Over the centuries, many explorers have passed through Jeddah, including Ludovico de Varthema, Ibn Battuta, Richard Burton and TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). When writer Paul Salopek visited Al-Balad in 2013 as part of his ‘Out of Eden Walk’ – a 38,600km odyssey to retrace our ancestors’ global migration routes – he wrote: “Modern-day Saudi Arabia has lost so much of its memory beneath sleek highways, parking lots, hotels, malls,” but here “is a remnant world – a preserved square kilometre of remembering.”
However, during the 1970s oil boom, locals moved out to modern complexes and the Old Town was largely neglected. On average, two buildings per year either fell down or were lost to fire, so in 2018, the Ministry of Culture appointed the Jeddah Historical District Progam (JHD) to oversee the restoration of Al-Balad. The area comprises four districts – Harat Al-Sham, Harat Al-Mazloum, Harat Al-Bahar and Harat Al-Yaman – and contains five historic souks, 36 mosques and 650 centuries-old mansions. Even today it still hums with busy brick-oven bakeries and traditional coffee shops, and has its own 170-year-old restaurant.

“Old cities are like bodies, the lanes like veins – they arise organically. And that hasn’t been lost in Al-Balad,” said Ahmed Angawi, founder of artist collective Zawiya 97 (see p179). Indeed, the area has managed to maintain a sense of community down the years, whether that is found in locals gathering five times a day to stand shoulder to shoulder while praying at Al-Shafi’i Mosque with its 800-year-old minaret, or in those joining the Jeddah Academy of Fine Arts for its outdoor classes, it is a familiarity that endures. Many of the people who work here have memories built into its old coral stones.

“My grandfather was a merchant in Al-Balad, and my mother still buys her groceries here,” said Rawaa Bakhsh, communications manager for the JHD, as we sat in her office inside the 120-year-old Beit Jamjoom in the heart of the Old Town. “In some restored places around the world, the soul has been sucked out – not here. This isn’t a ‘living museum’ – our aim is to regenerate and revive. These houses long for their people. Like two lovers, they thrive when they’re together.”

The JHD is aiming to avoid the mistakes that have been made by other cities around the world in restoring their old quarters.
“We don’t want a Venice or Dubrovnik. So, cruise ships will have to moor 2km away,” said Abdulaziz Alissa, director general of the JHD. “This includes returning to how it looked in 1948, when the sea lapped at the shores of the old city,” he added.

There is a real sense of time travel here. Perhaps it’s because in Saudi Arabia it’s still the year 1445, thanks to the lunar Hijri calendar, or because just north of Al-Balad sits the cemetery which legend says was the burial place of Eve, who is said to have alighted on a mountaintop here after she was exiled from Paradise. Indeed, the name Jeddah is believed to derive from the Arabic word ‘jaddah’, meaning ‘grandmother’ (Eve is often called the grandmother of humanity), and it has been suggested that the city may be one of the world’s oldest. What is undeniable is the feeling of being transported to another era as you wander the alleys of Al-Balad. I guarantee you’ll be listening for the clop of a camel around each corner.

Words Emma Thomson

Jeddah’s days as an emporium for spices from around the world are far from over

Jeddah’s days as an emporium for spices from around the world are far from over

Plans to restore the Al-Balad historic area are geared around preserving it for both the future and the local community

Plans to restore the Al-Balad historic area are geared around preserving it for both the future and the local community

Local families fill Al-Balad’s streets

Local families fill Al-Balad’s streets

Back to the start again

The difficult task of restoring and saving hundreds of Al-Balad’s leaning townhouses is just part of an even larger project, aimed at transforming the Old Town without losing its soul

Jeddah’s history as a thriving port enabled generations of wealthy merchants to build elaborate townhouses that rose ever higher, as space in the Old Town, which was walled until 1947, was tight (Alamy)

Jeddah’s history as a thriving port enabled generations of wealthy merchants to build elaborate townhouses that rose ever higher, as space in the Old Town, which was walled until 1947, was tight (Alamy)

“This is a national treasure,” said Rawaa Bakhsh of the Jeddah Historical District Program (JHD). “Al-Balad should be for everyone. Our intention is to restore and regenerate it, not to gentrify. It’s a walkable city with a strong sense of community that we want to keep, and we aspire to be a model for sustainable development.”

Strolling the streets of Al-Balad can be like stepping into an Arabian Nights fantasy, thanks to the aromas of oriental spices, the shopkeepers trading just as their forefathers did, and the recurring soundtrack of the call to prayer. But then you turn a corner and you’re brought straight back to the modern day by the sight of workers in hard hats and hi-vis. 
The restoration project is part of the country’s Vision 2030 plan for economic and social reform, and it’s nothing if not ambitious. The JHD office lies in the middle of Al-Balad, where the team is split 50/50 between men and women. I met with Sami Nawar, who through one capacity or another has devoted himself to preserving the area.

“About 80% of my working life is spent in the historical district, first as the director of inspection and then as director of the Historic Preservation Department. My job was to protect the city. I was very lucky to work in this position for 24 years. When I retired from the government, his Highness hired me; now I work with this beautiful team.”

Sami Nawar’s house is over 300 years old

Sami Nawar’s house is over 300 years old

Sami knows Al-Balad better than anyone and is a mine of local anecdotes, including tales of showing around the late Prince Philip, who recalled visiting as a 20 year old. And as for the local belief that Eve once settled in Jeddah: “I have searched for any other city in the world that has a similar legend and there is none,” he told me.

“We have 650 buildings ranging in age from 150 to 1,400 years old, and we have a project to restore all of them,” he said, talking me through their layouts. “The ground floor was for men, the ladies were upstairs for privacy. Some of the more modern houses – and when I say modern, I mean 150 years old – have their kitchens upstairs and were built so that horses and camels could deliver goods up to them.”

The buildings are being bought up in preparation for restoration, which can be a complex task if the family moved out decades ago, or if there are multiple owners – one had as many as 300, I was told. The former owners can also continue to be involved with the building in some way, whether using it for their business or some other project. 

As I saw more houses, I began to see how they had been built to fit their setting. Jeddah’s position on the coast was instrumental not just for its role as a port and gateway for pilgrims, it also affected the architecture.“The houses are sometimes shaped according to the wind,” said Sami. “If you go to my family house, you will see a U-shape facing the sea.” Sections of Jeddah’s waterfront were filled in decades ago to accommodate urban expansion, but an important part of the JHD project is going to be to reconnect the Red Sea with Al-Balad and to restore the historic Al-Bunt Port.  

The detailing on the Old Town’s doors and rawasheen are like fingerprints

The detailing on the Old Town’s doors and rawasheen are like fingerprints

The plans are far reaching and extend beyond the core UNESCO zone. It is also good to see a new generation getting involved with the restoration. The JHD collaborates with the Royal Institute of Traditional Arts, which has a branch in the heart of Al-Balad. They offer courses that teach students – 70% of them female – traditional crafts such as woodwork, natural dyeing and painting. They recently completed a roshan that they carved and slotted together without using a single drop of glue. This will be placed on the façade of one of the restored homes. 

I had been amazed by the passion of the people I had met here, whether they were business owners, artisans, guides, or worked on the project. I mentioned this to Rawaa.

“Once someone works in Al-Balad, it’s hard to leave. Most of us had family here, so it’s our duty to restore it,” she said. That sense of duty was clear to see, but I was struck by something more: a shared desire to restore Jeddah’s Old Town to its place as ‘the grandmother of the world’.

Words Lyn Hughes

While Al-Balad’s more modest dwellings rise just two or three storeys high, more opulent buildings, such as Beit Nassif, rose far higher as a symbol of wealth – its third floor even once housed a hammam

While Al-Balad’s more modest dwellings rise just two or three storeys high, more opulent buildings, such as Beit Nassif, rose far higher as a symbol of wealth – its third floor even once housed a hammam

The blue colour of Al-Balad’s rawasheen stems from a local mayor falling in love with the houses he saw in Tunisia

The blue colour of Al-Balad’s rawasheen stems from a local mayor falling in love with the houses he saw in Tunisia

The height and proximity of the taller buildings help to shade the street below

The height and proximity of the taller buildings help to shade the street below

Meet the locals

Saudi’s first female tour guide: Abir Abusulayman

“My love for heritage comes not from studies, but from my father. He used to tell us stories about Saudi Arabia’s great cities,” said Abir, perched on the sitting-room benches of Beit Salloum. “Then, in 2011, my son had a school trip to Al-Balad, but it was going to be cancelled, so I took him and his friend there and fell in love with the area.”

Abir then set up ‘Jeddah’s Heart’, a Facebook page that had 15,000-plus members and shared historical information aimed at reviving interest in the past. “Back then, being a tour guide wasn’t a job for ladies, but I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I visited people to learn more, and for seven years I offered tours on a complimentary basis to whomever called me. Then, when Saudi Vision 2030 [the Kingdom’s plan for economic and social reform] was announced, things changed. In 2019, I got my guide licence, so I retired early from the Ministry of Education to do this full time. My kids made me a cake with my tourist licence number and ‘Best Guide in the World’ written in icing!”

It’s a remarkable story, and I asked her what had been her proudest moment so far. “I was part of the UNESCO application to preserve Al-Balad,” she smiled. “My name is listed under the social movement section. My son Googled me and said, ‘Mum, you’re famous!’ What was a dream for me, and my generation, is now a reality for my daughter
– we now have more than 300 female tour guides.”

Before I left, she added: “Saudi has been closed for a long time, and not everyone is sure if they should visit, but hospitality is part of our culture – you have to come and see the reality.”

Designs for life

The stars of Al-Balad are its 650 or so townhouses. Their intricate balconies and facades offer a thrilling glimpse of the past but, for many years, were in danger of disappearing

Demand for land within the enclosed city meant houses were typically built without gardens or outdoor spaces

Demand for land within the enclosed city meant houses were typically built without gardens or outdoor spaces

The UNESCO-listed houses of Al-Balad sat in crooked rows that resembled old teeth – white but worn around the edges. They lined up along a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys, their facades gilded with arches, doors and latticed screens so intricately carved that even hundreds of years later, you could still sense the devotion their craftsmen had put into each notch and niche.

“Their genius is shown in techniques that have stood the test of time,” said Rawaa Bakhsh, communications manager for the Jeddah Historical District Program (JHD). To walk among them is to travel back in time, and some buildings contain fragments dating back 1,400 years. They also offer travellers a chance to see architecture similar to that of the holy city of Mecca, which is closed to non-Muslims.

Built from East-Asian teak and coral stone taken from the Red Sea, these homes reflect the evolution of Al-Balad.

“Architects call the coral stone ‘biscuit’ because it crumbles so easily,” explained our guide, Abir, who pointed to a hunk of coral in the corner of one building. The walls stand a bulky 80cm thick, but because the foundations are only a metre deep, their weight often causes them to tilt left or right. “I call them dancing houses,” smiled Abir.

Much like the guildhouses lining Brussels’ Grand Place in Belgium, these mansions were symbols of the might and fortunes of the great families of the city, who had accrued their wealth by importing everything from fruit to spices.

“I can tell you whose house is whose based solely on the windows,” said Abir, pointing to the rawasheen – enclosed balconies that jut out and are decorated with carved latticework designs known as mashrabiyas. This is one of the defining characteristics of Hijazi architecture, and homeowners would choose their patterns from a complex combination of options so that no two were the same. “They are the fingerprint of the building,” said Abir.

Other typical features include the takaleel – wooden beams running through the walls – that help to distribute the house’s weight evenly, the latticework on the roof and the geometric or floral carvings that sit above the doors. The word ‘rawasheen’ (or roshan in the singular) comes from the Persian ‘razin’, meaning ‘source of light’, and they come in three colours: the natural brown of the teak, green to celebrate the Saudi flag, or sky blue because a former city mayor once visited Tunisia and fell in love with Sidi Bou Said.

But these architectural elements are not built just for beauty. Their design is highly functional. In the kiln-hot heat of Saudi, the high homes cast cool shadows across the alley and provide relief from the unrelenting sun, while winds from the sea (which used to be much closer) would be funnelled down the narrow alleys and into the protruding rawasheen, which are closed on the sides so that the air is forced to curl up and waft into the room. Their latticed patterns also allowed women sitting in the cooled rooms to view what was going on from behind a screen of privacy.

Inside, the ground floor was reserved for the men’s majlis (sitting rooms) and a space to welcome pilgrims, while the upper floors were for the family and kitchen. These buildings have no gardens because the communal squares were considered an extension of the home, and men – and sometimes women – would gather there in the evenings on high wooden benches to drink tea and talk. (Click here for a glimpse inside some of Al-Balad’s historical homes)

But the undoubted jewel of Al-Balad’s historic homes is Beit Nassif. Located on the main road to Mecca, and guarded by an ancient neem tree, this 106-room mansion was built in 1881 by the governor of Jeddah and was used as a royal residence by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud for a few years in the late 1920s. Since 2009, it has served as a museum and cultural centre, but it is currently undergoing restoration. It also forms the core of many memories of the Old Town for local Jeddawi.
“I remember when I was a child and I was sent to buy ice,” recalled historian and engineer Sami Nawar. “I was carrying it back on my head, but my head had become numb from the cold, so I stopped outside Beit Nassif to play with the leaves and found ten riyals – that was like finding 1,000 riyals today. But then the ice melted!”

Sami, who holds the keys to the building, had kindly let us in, and what struck me first were the scalloped steps of the staircase, which are famously wide enough to allow a camel to carry supplies up to the kitchen on the top floor.

On the ground floor was a museum filled with treasures: tombstones from the cemetery where legend has it that Eve was buried and one of two ebony pillars taken from Sri Lankan ships found at the nearby site of Uthman Ibn Affan mosque. Wood is scarce in Saudi, so builders would often repurpose it from boats. But the real jewel here is the house itself, and as you wander it, you slowly begin to appreciate just how unique Al-Balad is.

Beit Nassif is currently only open at weekends (5–10pm), but it should be open more frequently in 2024.

Words Emma Thomson

The façades of Al-Balad’s historic houses were designed to catch the breezes that rolled in from the sea

The façades of Al-Balad’s historic houses were designed to catch the breezes that rolled in from the sea

Funnelling the cooler air into the interiors of the houses via rawasheen

Funnelling the cooler air into the interiors of the houses via rawasheen

The flat-topped roofs of houses also provided a welcome escape from the heat, and were often where locals would escape to

The flat-topped roofs of houses also provided a welcome escape from the heat, and were often where locals would escape to

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The Old Town is home to around 650 historic houses, the majority of which require urgent restoration work

The Old Town is home to around 650 historic houses, the majority of which require urgent restoration work

The lost arts of Al-Balad

A unique workspace in Al-Balad is enabling artisans practising traditional skills to breathe new life into crafts that are slowly disappearing – and visitors are invited along for the ride

Ahmed Angawi shows how he designs his intricate mangour screens, an integral feature of traditional Hejazi architecture

Ahmed Angawi shows how he designs his intricate mangour screens, an integral feature of traditional Hejazi architecture

“Technology will always advance, but we inevitably come back to balance, back to art, because it’s our human nature – we’re tied to the sacred,” explained the bearded Ahmed Angawi, leaning back in his office chair beneath the ancient beams of the Beit Al-Sharqi building.
Son of the famed Saudi architect Dr Sami Angawi, Ahmed is a respected artisan in his own right – five of his carved wooden mangour screens hang in the British Museum. He is also the founder of Zawiya 97, a collective that celebrates heritage, culture, craft and art by offering workspaces inside a series of old buildings – located just behind Beit Nassif – to artisans producing contemporary products that use traditional techniques.

Ahmed grew up visiting his father’s house in Al-Balad. “Seeing my father interacting with artisans here inspired me,” he said. “It’s about reviving what was here before: spaces to eat, work and live, and to melt the division between art and artisan, returning it to what it once was,” he continued before turning to gaze out of the window.

In order to foster talent and protect its meaning and role in community life, Zawiya 97 also hosts free lectures and music concerts every Thursday. These are open to both locals and travellers and are followed by a homecooked meal – using ingredients from neighbourhood suppliers – at the community kitchen.

“Al-Balad is like a river; people flow through here, so we try to pick those that will create the right environment. We live in a very important time for defining our [Saudi Arabia’s] identity as we reopen to the world. I want to take what’s good from the past and adapt it for now,” he said, tapping his desk to drive home his point.

Reem Abdulghani is hard at work on her embroidery

Reem Abdulghani is hard at work on her embroidery

So far, Zawiya 97 has offered residencies to 20 artists and artisans. One of them is the fashion designer Reem Abdulghani, who left Saudi Arabia when she was only eight years old on account of her father’s work. She returned three years ago, but while she was abroad, she earned a masters degree at Polimoda, Florence’s premier fashion school, and worked in the embroidery department at Roberto Cavalli before developing her own 3D embroidery technique.

“It was like an eruption,” Reem explained. “I had felt closed, then through embroidery I bloomed again. It’s like painting with thread. Put fabric in front of me and creativity flows – it’s just me, the thread and the fabric.”

In the hope of empowering other women, Reem now offers free embroidery workshops. She has also launched her own clothing label, but none of it has come easily.

“I had to revisit the ‘Reem’ who had grown up here,” she said, sitting behind the embroidery table in her studio, which doubles as a small giftshop and sells her embroidered tote bags, key chains and hair scrunchies. “I visited Al-Balad for a workshop and felt very attached to the place – one week later, I had an interview for an artist’s space, and then I found out that the building had belonged to my family a long time ago,” she marvelled.

Her garments combine Islamic designs with styles from her travels. “I never follow trends – it’s all about emotion. I try to incorporate feminine energy by moving away from blacks and beiges and using colours such as fuchsia and yellow. Girls of my generation connect with the bold theme of the designs because, in a small way, they aim to encourage more inquiry into our emotions and decisions – they start to ask themselves: what’s ok for me and what’s not?”

Hassan proudly holds one of his bowls

Hassan proudly holds one of his bowls

Another of Zawiya 97’s artists is 29-year-old Hassan Mohammed, a woodturner who is well aware of how niche his craft is. “There are few woodturners left now – it’s rare in the world, not just Jeddah,” he told me as we stood in his workshop, my nostrils filled with the scent of warm wood.

“Back in 2015, I decided I wanted to carve my own chess set, but there were no teachers, so I had to teach myself,” Hassan said, gesturing to the heavy machinery at the back of his studio. “In doing so, I discovered the art’s great history and realised there was an Al-Kheratah (Woodturner Lane) in Al-Balad. People of my generation come to this area for the nostalgia, but the younger generation come to be part of the old quarter’s new movement.”

I picked up one of the bowls on display. “Wood is precious here, so whenever they’re cutting branches in the neighbourhood, they call me,” Hassan told me proudly. “I don’t try to fix the imperfections, but I love giving life to a dead piece of wood that will last generations.”

He turned a bowl over to show me where he’d engraved the name of the wood used and the date it was made. As I was leaving, I pointed to the shop sign hanging inside the entrance. It read ‘Aromat’. “It’s an old Arabic word meaning ‘the roots of the tree inside the land’ – like me here in Zawiya,” he finished.

Visit zawiya97.com for more information.

Words Emma Thomson