Since yesterday, we’ve been in the city of Jeddah, and we’re going to spend the next few days here visiting various parts of the city. Jeddah is very different from the city of Riyadh, where we had previously been staying, and these differences reveal the fact that different regions of Saudi Arabia have different cultures and perspectives. This is the case in the United States as well: there is a major different in culture, beliefs, and political attitudes between the East Coast and the West Coast, for example, or the North and the South. Recognizing that there is a difference in how the Saudis of Jeddah think compared to the Saudis of Riyadh think is an important step in realizing that this culture, though not necessarily pluralistic yet, is beginning to open up to new perspectives and new ideas.
Some background on the city is important for understanding why it has the character that it does. Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and is situated on the coast of the Red Sea. It is the largest sea port on the Red Sea, making it an important commercial hub and cosmopolitan center. Even more importantly, it is the principle entrance point to Mecca, and serves as the starting point for Muslims who are making their pilgrimage to the holy shrine. Because of its importance as a center of commerce and as the starting point for pilgrims, there are many different nationalities and cultures present in the city. This cosmopolitan atmosphere has made Jeddah a much more open and liberal place than other parts of Saudi Arabia; indeed, the Saudis we have talked to have said that Jeddah is their most liberal city, akin to San Francisco in the United States. Compared to our experience in Riyadh, this is definitely apparent: couples openly walk around holding hands, women can be seen not wearing their restrictive garb, and parties and festivities occur outside into the late hours of the night. Interestingly, Jeddah seems to be a center for art: everywhere you go, there are sculptures and public art displays on show. This attitude is very different from Riyadh, and is a different reality from the commonly held American perspective that Islamic Arabs are restrictive on displays of art, music, and culture.
Today we took a visit to Al-Balad, the “old city” of Jeddah and its primary historical area. It was founded in the 7th century and served as the center of Jeddah. Once ringed by walls and a serving as the bustling center of commerce, today it is slowly being replaced by the modern skyscrapers and urban sprawl which are encroaching on its location. However, much of the historical character of Al-Balad remains, and once inside the massive difference between the modern, cosmopolitan city and the traditional feel and architecture of the old city is instantly apparent.
Many of the buildings are very old, and indeed some date back many hundreds of years. The layout of the old city is what I always perceived Middle Eastern cities to be like: cramped and crowded, with tight alleyways and shops lining every street. The buildings are mostly built out of stone or coral, instead of the modern building materials used to construct the modern portions of the city, and many feature ornate and complicated wooden facades and designs. We were told by our tour guide that these wooden buildings were demonstrations of wealth, as wood can only be had by importing it from Africa or India. Wealthy Arabs in the past who had buildings of wood were clearly wealthy enough to afford importing it, a bit like how overweight Europeans in the past were clearly wealthy enough to afford to eat lavishly.
Among some of the more fascinating buildings we saw was a many hundred years old mosque, dating back to the earliest years of the city and which is still standing to this day. We were taken up into one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the old city, which is currently under renovation but whose rooftop provided a beautiful view of both Al-Balad and the modern city surrounding it. While on this rooftop, we were treated to tea and a pleasant discussion with our tour guide, who has been giving tours of the old city for decades. We were also shown an aquifer dating back to the Portuguese attack on Jeddah hundreds of years ago, and the old gatehouse which provided the entrance to the city when the walls still stood.
Shops line the walls of the buildings in the old city, selling a wide variety of things. Some of the shops we visited included a date shop, selling the delicious Middle Eastern fruit, a shop full of spices and herbs which filled the entire street with a strong aroma, and shops serving Muslims going on their pilgrimage who pass through the old city. Because it is Friday, most of the shops were closed for prayer and the streets were empty. While this was unfortunate for us because we couldn’t experience the bustle and true feeling of the old city, it did allow us to more greatly appreciate its layout and architecture.
Walking around in Al-Balad was an incredible experience. It really demonstrated the difference between modern Saudi Arabia, with its glitzy and futuristic skyscrapers and modern city planning, and the historical and traditional character of the Saudi city. Even more important to me was the recognition that I was walking on thousands of years of history. The same streets I walked on and buildings I went into were the ones that Muslims going on the pilgrimage half a millennium ago walked on and visited, and knowing that is a really incredible feeling. Though our program is trying to teach us about the contemporary character of Saudi Arabia, being in the old city exposed us to the rich, vibrant, and extensive history of the region and its people. We in the United States cannot have that same sort of experience: our oldest cities are only 300 or 400 years old. Here, you can literally walk on top of thousands of years of human settlement, development, life and progress. I’d have to say that, because of all this, our trip to the old city was my favorite experience in Saudi Arabia so far.