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(CNN) These days, Jeddah looks like many other modern cities: bustling shopping malls filled with luxury international brands, a thriving café and café culture, and a walkable oceanfront district where families socialize on weekends.
But the beating heart of this city, the country, is more than a thousand years old and has been immaculately preserved as a reminder of Saudi Arabia’s history – specifically Jeddah’s role as a major entry point for religious pilgrims.
says Sean Foley, professor of Middle East and Islamic history at Middle Tennessee State University
“It’s a unique cultural intersection place, a bit like Singapore, or Hong Kong. It’s a port city.”
Centuries before the arrival of online travel booking websites and tour buses swarming with selfie-taking vacationers, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city was a tourism hot spot.
From city to city
One of the most notable features of the buildings in Al-Balad – which simply means “city” in Arabic – is a form of intricate wooden latticework known as a rawashin.
These wooden window coverings and porches weren’t just popular for aesthetic reasons—though many are beautiful, with intricate designs of circles, moons, arrows, or stars and often painted in shades of blue or green.
Quite simply, it was practical for desert life. Roachin (Roshan, in the singular) blocked out the worst of the midday sun, while the designs and slats allowed the wind to float through.
In addition to being beautiful, these rawawashin – often made of fine materials that are not local to the region – are examples of Jeddah’s dynamic culture.
“What made Jeddah so rich was the trade across the Red Sea to Egypt, which was a very big market,” explains James Barry, author of the book.Jeddah country. “
“Therefore, the merchants of Djidda were like brokers, and became very rich and built themselves splendid houses, decorated with expensive materials, and much teak and mahogany imported from South Asia and India as well as from East Africa.”
For a long time, the city was surrounded by walls. As more and more people moved to Jeddah, space quickly became an issue. One solution was to keep building upwards, so there were houses with as many as eight or nine floors.
One of the oldest and most famous houses, once owned by a family called Nassif and now owned by the Saudi government and converted into a museum, wasn’t just tall — its interior staircase was wide enough for a camel to carry water up to the upper floors.
Then, in the seventh century, came the reason for dividing buildings into multiple houses or rooms: the tourists.
That was when Caliph Othman bin Affan decreed that Jeddah should be the official port for those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. Medina, the second holiest city, is also nearby.
“Balad and Jeddah in general and the western region of the kingdom are unique because of the presence of Mecca, Medina and Hajj,” says Foley. “They have an external connection to the rest of the world and they have a very diverse sense of communities.”
what do you see
The former home of the Nassif family – the house with the beautiful wide staircase – is a museum called the Nassif House. It’s a favorite location for shoots thanks to the large tree that grows in front of – and partly through – the building.
There are other notable buildings in the neighborhood that should be on a traveler’s bucket list as well, such as the Al-Shafi’i Mosque, the oldest mosque in Jeddah, dating back to the 13th century, and the Bab Makkah, or Bab Makkah, which is one of the largest mosques in the world. The only remaining parts of the old city walls.
But perhaps the best thing to do in the country is the simplest: just wander its narrow alleyways.
The ideal times to visit are in the morning and early evening, as many businesses are closed during the hottest hours of the day.
If you need a break from exploring, stop by one of the many cafes in the neighborhood. With clean tile floors and bright fairy lights shining along the ceiling, Medd Café & Roastery has English-speaking staff and tea is served in locally made cups.
From there, it’s a short walk to Beit Al Hudhaif Art Gallery and Artists Studios, which are easy to spot with their hand-drawn Arabic calligraphy in red, blue and black on the front and a blue door inspired by Rawashin’s designs.
New country life
Many locals credit Muhammad Saeed Farsi, who was the mayor of Jeddah from 1972 to 1986, for rejuvenating the country.
By the time he was elected, the ancient region was no longer the sparkling jewel it had been in centuries past.
Homes are neglected and abandoned. The buildings were unsafe, and many lacked electricity or running water. Local families chose to move to modern neighborhoods with air conditioning and parking.
During one period in the 20th century, several large textile makers took over buildings in the country. Some of them installed huge industrial sewing machines that rattled already thin walls all day, exacerbating structural problems.
Al-Farsiyya hails from the ancient Al-Jeddawi family and was a keen Western art collector. Barry said he devoted the city’s resources to the rest of the country’s buildings and prevented some of them from being destroyed.
The Persian leadership paid off.
The Al-Balad region was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014 as Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Mecca.
These days, some of the better preserved buildings contain shops, cafes, and other businesses operating on the ground floors.
The owners may have smartphones and Apple Watches now, but there are still carpet sellers and spice shops lining the narrow alleys.
The country remains an important meeting place for Saudis, but in different ways. MDLBEAST, a music entertainment company, held a music festival called country monster in December 2022.
Over two nights, the country’s old buildings were lit up while performances like Busta Rhymes, Exciting and Lobby Fiasco performed alongside some of the biggest musicians in the Arab world.
Historian and author Barry has visited Jeddah twelve times but says he always finds himself returning to the country.
“While there are very tall buildings in other cities like Makkah, they’re pretty much taken away now. And I think it’s only in Jeddah where you stand in the country that you feel you’re in a historical place.”
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