Shams Ahsan
Last updated: 15 January, 2013

My favourite neighbourhood in…Jeddah

Jeddah is today undergoing a massive transformation. Road network expansion and other development projects have turned Saudi Arabia’s second largest city into a construction site. But away from the cacophony of cranes and bulldozers lies the city’s heart: Al-Balad.

Al-Balad is Jeddah’s downtown, and so it is a beehive of activity. Today it boasts ritzy shopping centers, offices, traditional souks, eateries, and haberdasheries.

But if one walks past these glass buildings and concrete marquees meandering through alleys, one is transported back to history. In fact, every alleyway has a history to tell and an architectural landmark to exhibit its tradition.

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Located in one such alley, Souk Al-Alawi, is one of the most prominent landmarks of Al-Balad, Naseef House. In 1881, the year when it was finished, Naseef House was considered to be an architectural marvel and was known as “the house with the tree” since it boasted of the only tree the entire city had at that time. Today, the neem tree – the oldest in the city – still poses in front of the house. The yellow-and-brown building stands out amid the adjoining modern structures because of its rawasheen or wooden windows with ornate designs. In fact all the old buildings in Al-Balad have distinct rawasheen patterns. Rawasheen gave privacy to women without blocking the wind and the sunlight.

Naseef House played host to the late King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in 1925 when he stayed here after the siege of Jeddah. Today this historical structure has been converted into a museum.

As one moves further inside Jeddah’s old area, walking gets tougher as the alleys get narrower. But at the end of each alleyway there are open plazas where you’ll find Saudis sitting on raised platforms smoking shisha or water pipes. Aroma of all types of traditional Hijazi (western Saudi Arabian) food permeates the air. At a nearby stall, a Beduin in traditional Hijazi turban and tunic shouts “baleela, baleela,” which a local dish made of chickpeas.

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Jeddah is said to named after Eve – Hauwwa in Arabic, meaning old lady – although historians don’t believe this “tale”. But at the entrance of Al-Balad is a very old cemetery, famous for being the resting place of Eve. Till a few years back, a sign hung at the entrance to the cemetery, marking it as Bibi Hauwwa (Eve) cemetery. This too is a tourist attraction.

Considering the historic value of Al-Balad, in 1990 the Saudi government started an extensive renovation programme under the supervision of the Historical Area Preservation Department.

My favourite neighbourhood in… is a new series by Your Middle East that includes authentic, local stories from our contributors across the MENA region.