Visiting Al-Balad - the Old City



If you have ever seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you know it takes place around the first World War when the British were aiding the Arabs in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire that had controlled the region off and on for centuries. Most of what you see is a land of Bedouin tribes that roam the region with their camels and goats. Rarely is there a scene of an actual town.

minor gate into Balad from Corniche Commercial side

That's why it is somewhat surprising to find buildings that are over 400 years old in the old section of Jeddah known as Al-Balad. On the one hand you have the images of the movie in your head, while on the other you have a logical realization that people have lived in the region for thousands of years. It only makes sense that there would be a very old city on the shores of the Red Sea. A city that has been not only a port for centuries of trade, but also as a landing place for people on their way to the Holy City of Mecca. 


Balad, for short, is a historic district in much need of preservation. It is rare to see the old style of Arab homes still existing when there is so much modernization all around. There are also the problems of deterioration as some buildings are apparently sinking into the ground due to flood damage and time. This includes the main mosque, which the government is trying to restore.

Here I am with my roommate, Azhar. She's a Saudi and acted as my translator for the day. Her family lives in Mecca and part of her ancestry includes Indian blood. She reminds me that for all those centuries, the Red Sea coast of Saudi was quite cosmopolitan due to all the trade. She says that when the country was unified in 1930, all inhabitants were granted Saudi citizenship, no matter what their background. 

Hejaz House
Most of the old homes in Balad are vacant now, although some have been turned into museums. During evening prayers we stopped at the Hejaz House, one of the old homes that has been turned into a coffee house and museum. While there, a family sat next to us and started a conversation with my roommate in Arabic. She told me that the wife's father still owns a nearby house that the  family has owned for many generations. Like others, they have moved to more modern accommodations, but have held onto the home and are investing in its preservation. 

Speaking of Prayer Time, take a listen to this clip. Forget the picture because it is unimportant. It's the sound of about a half dozen mosques all calling for prayer at the same time. I've heard a lot of calls to prayer in my life, but never so many together.




There's a real beauty in the old buildings and their windows. The old shutter-balconies are called Hejazi mashrabiyya.






We also went to another museum, the Matbouli House. Inside it was a maze of floors, stairways, tucked away rooms.



 I was hoping to stumble across the old style souks from my childhood, but not on this day. There may be a second Balad post later in my stay as I plan to return a couple of times for exploration.