After several years of pandemic hiatus, I am excited to be traveling again and this time to Saudi Arabia where tourist visas were launched for the first time only in September 2019. Previously, the only visitors allowed were businessmen or pilgrims. Under Saudi Vision 2030, the country aims to transform from an economy dependent on its oil pipeline to a center for trade and tourism. During my flight there, I wondered what it would be like to travel in Saudi Arabia as a woman. I was told that under the launch of Saudi Vision 2030, women no longer need to wear the black hijab or abaya (floor-length long-sleeved robe), they no longer need to be chaperoned, and they can now drive. Even though the hijab mandate has been lifted, most women still dress modestly and wear an abaya. Women on the flight to Jeddah donned abayas or at least wore tunics or jackets long enough to cover their bottoms. I decided to skip Riyadh and go directly to the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia, Jeddah.
Jeddah, founded in the 7th century, was the historic crossroads of traders as well as pilgrims being the traditional gateway to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Today, it is a modern city with high rises, a beautiful corniche, and boutique cafes. Of particular interest is the UNESCO old town Al Balad with houses dating back 500 years, preserved mosques, and traditional souks still operating until today.
Al Balad means “The Town” and used to be the center of Jeddah but as the Saudis moved out and immigrants moved in, it became a poor neighborhood. It was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and many of the old buildings are still being restored. The area is very quiet during the day with most shops closed until 5pm.
This hard-working madas-maker (Saudi sandal-maker) was the one of the few shops open during the long afternoon break.
Bab Jadid or the Old Jeddah Gate is one of the main gates to Al Balad which used to be surrounded by a wall.
Three-hundred-year-old traditional multi-storey houses made of wood and coral stone ornate decorations and wooden rawasheen balconies fill the area. Some of these houses (Nassif House, Matbouli House, Salloum Residence etc) are supposedly open for visits, but when I went nothing was open and there were no signs indicating opening hours. After wandering around checking if anything was open for a while and feeling defeated, I ended up at Medd Cafe for a coffee break. While sipping my coffee and contemplating if I should just forget it and leave Al Balad, a group of nicely dressed locals entered the cafe and struck up a conversation with me. Turned out the gentlemen were with the Ministry of Culture. After I mentioned that nothing was open, they sent a staff to open one of the main houses, Nassif House, for me to visit. My spirits lifted immediately. It was my lucky day after all!
Nassif House, built in 1881 with over 106 rooms, was once a governor’s house, a royal residence, and then a library. The house is made up of rectangular rooms arranged irregularly around a large central hall. There are two large 2-storey high rawashins or bay windows in the front covered in ornate wood lattice common for the buildings in Al Balad. The stairs inside the house have shallow risers so that camels and horses can take supplies up to the top-floor kitchen. And the nem tree in the courtyard is said to be the only such tree in Jeddah back on the 1920s. Nassif House supposedly serves as a museum showcasing artifacts, photographs, and curios from the region but at the time of visit most of the house was blocked off and there wasn’t too much to see inside.
Nassif House with the nem tree in the courtyard.
The study used by the King during his stay here.
Stairs have shallow risers allowing horses and camels to take supplies up to the top floor kitchen.
Al Shafee Mosque, named after one of the four great imams of classical Sunni Islam, dates from the 16th century. The Ottoman styled mosque with an impressive minaret is one of the finest in Jeddah.
Al Shafee Mosque in Al Balad
During the time of my visit, Al Balad was a large construction site with many streets blocked and most of the buildings undergoing some sort of restoration. Perhaps when all the crumbling buildings are restored and the area cleaned up, it will be a wonderful experience wandering around the labyrinth of streets. For now the area is definitely not pleasant to visit.
This street is lined with shops selling gold jewelry and I was told that Saudis prefer to give gifts and dowry in gold because of its fungible nature. Marriages are still predominantly arranged here. To these two young men, TikTok is more interesting than women and gold.
Not far from Al Balad is King Fahd’s Fountain, built in the same style as the Jet d’Eau fountain of Geneva. It is the tallest fountain in the world at 312 meters. The fountain uses seawater which is unusual. Locals like to gather at the waterfront with their rugs, Arabic coffee, dates, and other snacks and make a picnic out of the occasion. I was told that every evening, weekdays and weekend alike, the waterfront is packed with locals waiting for the tallest fountain in the world to jet water into the sunset. Illuminated by 500 spotlights, it is a sight to behold.
On the other side of Jeddah is Al Rahma Mosque or Floating Mosque, built on pillars as if floating at sea. It is one of the top mosques in Saudi Arabia and one of the stops for pilgrims performing the Hajj. Made of white marble with a turquoise dome, the mosque has 56 windows carves with Quranic verses and can accommodate more than 21,000 worshippers at a time.
Al Rahma Mosque
Tourism is at its infancy here in Saudi Arabia and they still have much to figure out. It was quite frustrating traveling here where no one (including hotel receptionists) seems to know anything. I tried to visit the Khuzam Palace Museum which houses the Jeddah Regional Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. Both the hotel and the official website claimed it was open. Surprise! It was closed with the gates locked and no one in sight to even ask if it will be open later. I agree completely with Lonely Planet that it is “the final frontier for tourism”.
Next stop is the ancient oasis city of AlUla in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Stay tuned!
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