History of Saudi Arabia: Jeddah - Growth of the Glittering City
History of Saudi Arabia: Jeddah - Growth of the Glittering City Last updated on Saturday 24th April 2010
Jeddah, the largest city in Saudi Arabia's Western Province, once nestled sleepily on the shores of the Red Sea, with no premonition of its prestigious future. Today it hums, glitters and resounds with industry, technology and cosmopolitan human life.
The origin of the city's name poses an interesting dilemma for etymologists. Juddah (pronounced Jiddah) in Arabic means seashore, which seems logical enough, but the school of thought which prefers Jaddah or grandmother, is given credence by the traditional location of Eve's tomb within the city. Jeddah is, in fact, incorrect, but is popularly used by most non-Saudis living there.
The story of Jeddah is one of expansion on a colossal scale. This expansion has been both rapid and recent, mostly within the past 20 years. A look at the figures is staggering. In 1947, the city encompassed no more than one square kilometre, and its population was about 30,000. Now, with a population of approximately one and a half million, Jeddah occupies an area of 560 square kilometres and stretches for 80km north to south along its coastline. Between the boom years of 1974 and 1980, the population of Jeddah doubled, and statistical experts predict that this figure will have doubled again by the end of the century.
Jeddah is the Kingdom's principal seaport, the original gateway to Makkah and Madinah for pilgrims arriving by ship. Recently, the influx of pilgrims from abroad has increased dramatically with the building of Jeddah's International Airport and its architecturally unique Hajj terminal. Today, Jeddah welcomes 97% of all pilgrims arriving by sea and 98% of those arriving by air. This places huge demands on consumer goods, building materials, hotel accommodation, and technical and administrative services, thus providing an enormous boost to the city's economic prosperity.
Jeddah has grown from humble origins. It began about 2,500 years ago as a tiny fishing settlement, established by the Quada's tribe. In AD647, Caliph Osman Ibn Affan chose Jeddah as the main port for the city of Makkah, and it became known as Bilad al Kanasil -- the City of Consulates. In the 16th century, the Ottomans built a stone wall around the town, in order to fortify it against attacks from the Portuguese. Originally, four gates were set in these walls, Bab Sherif opening towards the south, Bab Makkah facing east, Bab Madinah in the north wall and a west gate facing the Red Sea.
Bab Jadeed, the new gate, was not built until the early 1900s and was wide enough to accommodate the motor car. Sentries were posted at these gates, which were closed at dusk. Entering the town after dark would, no doubt have proved a challenging business.
Jeddah remained a fortified, walled town for centuries of Ottoman influence and was not released from Turkish rule until 1915. Further evidence of Turkish influence can be seen in Jeddah's architecture. The buildings of old Jeddah were tall and graceful, constructed of coral limestone and decorated with intricately beautiful wooden facades, known as rawasheen (singular roshan). These were designed not only to break up the sun's glare, but also to take advantage of the cooling sea breezes when the inner windows were opened. One cannot help but feel that, with the enclosure of the town within high, fortified walls, the sea breezes may not have stood much chance of reaching Jeddah's early inhabitants; hence their penchant for building their houses tall and for sleeping on the roofs on hot summer nights.
Some of these beautiful old houses still exist in Jeddah, if you know where to look. However, their number is sadly declining and many are in a poor state of repair. An extensive renovation programme, run by the Historical Area Preservation Department, was set up in 1990 and aims to protect the city's architecture and heritage. The department now employs a staff of over fifty people and organises digs, tours and local research.
In bygone days, the streets of Old Jeddah were twisting, unpaved and haphazard, flanked by closely-packed buildings. A thick layer of sand covered these streets, packed solid by numerous tramping feet. Mingling with the strolling inhabitants, water carriers and other street vendors, camel caravans once plodded their way through the wider thoroughfares, while goats and donkeys wandered in the narrow alleys.
The souq was the heartbeat of Old Jeddah and is still an exciting and picturesque part of today's city. In those far-off days open-fronted shops grouped together according to trade; an old Oriental bazaar tradition, which has continued, to some extent, into modern life. Wares were displayed in the street under palm-leafed canopies, sheltering traders from the relentless sun -- a far cry from the modern-day comforts of air-conditioning in the luxurious shopping malls of the 1990s.
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Jeddah became one of the main ports on the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As a result, the city's wealth increased dramatically, and Jeddah's inhabitants became more cosmopolitan. European diplomatic legations were established on the northern side of the city, and rich merchants began to build their family homes here. Sailors awaiting the departure of their ships on the spice routes often used their craft skills to decorate the facades of these dwellings. Pilgrims often brought goods from their native lands to sell in Jeddah, and those who could not afford the homeward journey often stayed on and settled here. These men sometimes married into a local family and became permanent residents of Jeddah.
Modernisation of the city forged ahead with the passing of the years. By 1929 the first house of reinforced concrete had been built; less attractive than the delicate coral limestone, perhaps, but certainly a more durable alternative. 1940 saw the advent of electricity, 1948 marked the arrival of the first airfield, and in 1965 the first automatic telephone system was introduced.
The reign of King Abdul Aziz and the unification of the Kingdom brought new stability to Jeddah, and its enclosing walls became obsolete. Expansion had become essential, too, and the city walls were therefore demolished. An interesting local story tells how the broken rocks from the demolished wall were used as fill for the new pier in Jeddah harbour, which was built to enable larger steamers to come alongside. The story is probably apocryphal -- a pity, if so, as there is a certain gentle irony in the idea that the rocks once used to discourage invading forces are now helping visitors to come ashore.
Jeddah's building boom began in the Seventies and still continues at a breathtaking pace. New shopping centres, office building and apartment blocks are springing up everywhere. Stretches of former desert have now become part of an expanding, lush green city. Jeddah has successfully managed to combine the dignity and traditions of the past with the dynamism of the modern business world.