From the land or from the sea, Jiddah today looks nothing like the second-oldest city in Saudi Arabia. A forest of steel, concrete and glass towers, Jiddah, at the height of its growth in the late 1960's, ranked as one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. But wrapped within this bustling cosmopolitan metropolis lies an architectural treasure from the past. It makes Saudi Arabia's second city one of the many sites in the country that, together, mirror all ages of humankind. The few square kilometers of Old Jiddah, a city within a city these days, contain an architectural richness of old buildings and a culmination of style and form which epitomize the city's long traditions and the eventful course of its checkered history.
From its earliest beginnings, Jiddah has enjoyed a romantic and notable significance. According to a city guide published by the municipality, a "Kodah" tribe first settled on the site of pre-Islamic Jiddah, establishing a small fishing village on the shores of al-Manqabah Lagoon to the north of the present town.
The site was favored with a fortunate geography: a good anchorage at a rare gap in the formidable triple coral-reef barrier along the Red Sea coastline, and a location at the end of the southern Hijaz Escarpment, whose precipitous cliffs run all the way to Yemen in the south. The fishing village blossomed into an important staging post on the ancient trade routes linking the civilizations of the Far East with the city-states of the Mediterranean.
By the sixth century, Persians of the Sassanid Empire had ensconced themselves in the city. They built Jiddah's first fortifications and constructed a system of conduits and cisterns to furnish an assured water supply to the fast-growing city. Although the Sassanids held the city for centuries, nothing now remains of their occupation.
The coming of Islam greatly increased the urban importance of Jiddah and, ever since, the city's fortunes, history and development have been intimately linked with the progress of Islam. As the entry point for the pilgrimage to the two holy cities, Makkah and Medina, Jiddah's distinction was confirmed and its prosperity assured. In addition to the all-important pilgrim traffic, Jiddah flourished as a transshipment port, and the cosmopolitan character of the city was well established. By the time the Amir of Makkah expelled the Sassanids from the city, the Persian poet and traveler Nasir-i Khusrow, could describe Jiddah as:
... a great city situated on the coast and surrounded by a strong wall. Its population reaches the number of five thousand male inhabitants. The bazaars are beautiful, the qibla of the Great Mosque faces east. There are no buildings to be seen outside the city, except for a mosque which is called Masjid al-Rassul. The city has two gates, one to the east opens on to the Makkah road; the other to the west opens to the sea.
But about 100 years later, the city walls had fallen into ruins. They were not to be rebuilt for another 500 years, when an Ottoman governor re-established the city's fortifications. Within those confining walls, which were not demolished until 1947, Old Jiddah's conformation was settled. The physical appearance of the city scarcely altered over the subsequent years.
When the Englishman Charles Doughty, one of the greatest of the early foreign travelers in Arabia, wrote his classic Travels in Arabia Deserta, he ended the account with a description of his arrival in Jiddah. Coming from the uplands of Ta'if, southeast of the city, Doughty recalled the words of his Arab traveling companion as they neared the city. "Rejoice!" said the Arab, "for from the next brow we will show thee Jiddah!" Then, Doughty wrote, he beheld "the white sea gleeming far under the sun, and tall ships riding, and the minarets of the town!"
Until recent times, as late as the mid-1960's, the traveler's first view of the city of Jiddah was much the same. Whether seen from inland or from the sea, the skyline was dominated by the shining white minarets of the numerous mosques, by the lofty town houses and palaces of the great merchants of the town, and by the celebrated caravanserai of the port.
The town inns, mosques and merchants' houses of Old Jiddah are concealed today behind modern steel skyscrapers that make up Jiddah's bustling business district. Even the shoreline no longer holds its earlier shape: Old Jiddah is separated from the shallow waters of the reef by a wedge of reclaimed and developed land. At first sight, it could be thought that Jiddah's historical and architectural heritage had been swept entirely away in the immense surge of development which took place during the 1960's and 1970's.
In those hectic years, when Jiddah - and much of the rest of the country - was literally transfigured, the pace of change could be marked from day to day. In such an atmosphere, voices calling for renovation and conservation tended to be drowned out by the roar of construction machinery. In the general mood of eagerness to change and determination to modernize, there was little place for ideas on preservation and conservation.
The economics of the time were no help to conservation. Land prices and rents in the main town had risen astronomically. Rebuilding and redevelopment was an almost certain path to profit, and the buildings of the recent past got short shrift. That any part of Old Jiddah escaped the developers' bulldozers was due to some fortunate circumstances - and to some exceptional men.
The preservation of historic Old Jiddah might never have come about had the mayor of Jiddah at the time, Muhammad Sa'id Farsi, not been a trained engineer and architect. Farsi was also a man with a profound belief in the importance of cultural values and the necessity of protecting the national heritage.
As mayor, Farsi was particularly concerned about Jiddah's fast-vanishing architectural heritage, and he was determined to do something about it. Fortunately, Farsi's personal convictions were reinforced by his professional qualifications, and his plans on conservation were much facilitated by his mayoral authority. Equally fortunately, the actions of the Saudi government were also helpful to the project Jiddah's mayor had in mind.
In the late 1960's the Saudi government set up, with help from the United Nations, regional and city planning studies throughout the country. Each city had an approved master plan, geared to the national Five-Year Plan. In the case of Jiddah, the city managers had to cope with an explosive growth rate of about 16 per-cent a year, one of the highest in the world.
In 1979, when the pace of expansion had slackened a little, the Saudi authorities appointed a leading British consulting firm to make a detailed study of Old Jiddah and draw up plans to preserve the area's unique architecture and, at the same time, ensure the continuation of its thriving community life. The decision was a particular pleasure to George Duncan, a partner in planning for Saudi Arabia's Western Province. As early as 1971, he had drawn attention to the outstanding urban heritage in Old Jiddah and urged measures to make its survival certain. He joined with Farsi as a member of the team to save Old Jiddah.
The consultants' surveys showed that more than one thousand historic structures in Old Jiddah had survived the ravages of time, climate and, in many cases, sheer neglect. About half that number were designated "buildings of architectural and historical significance" and recommended for preservation and protection. Farsi established a special branch office of the municipality - called Al-Balad, or the City - charged with putting the preservation program into effect.
But Old Jiddah was not to be turned into an open-air museum merely to display a fossilized, static sample of the past. On the contrary, the historic community was to remain the home of its 50,000 people and, by the careful injection of various commercial enterprises, be the source of jobs for several thousand more. The conservation of Old Jiddah was to prolong its useful life, for the authorities recognized that the key to the physical survival of Jiddah's "historic core" lay in its continuation as a living, functional urban entity. The rehabilitation of Old Jiddah called for a large investment of both money and human resources; Mayor Farsi, backed by national authorities, was determined that the result would be worthwhile in every sense.
The program of preservation and conservation was not all plain sailing. "The building boom was still in progress," recalls Zaki Farsi, a member of the technical team set up at Al-Balad. "There was very little incentive for the owners of the old buildings to think of preservation. Redevelopment of central town sites in Jiddah could, and did, make large fortunes for individual owners. Asking them to retain and maintain old buildings, which were very expensive to keep in good condition, was asking them to forgo enormous financial opportunities."
Owners of buildings could not be simply ordered to carry out repairs and renovations, and, on the other hand, the major developments of the city as a whole could not be Halted or diverted. But much was achieved by Mayor Farsi and other believers in the preservation program, who used their acknowledged personal prestige and influence to persuade owners to support the program. The city's planning authority was also deployed in the cause, in some cases allowing the ground floors of selected historic houses to be used for commercial purposes. This not only produced respectable incomes for the owners of the buildings but also revitalized the area's economic situation. The vision of a living Old Jiddah began to be recognized by a wider circle as a commercially viable prospect, as well as a socially desirable one.
The structures of Old Jiddah were a particular expression of long-established regional building traditions. As well as Jiddah, other ports on both sides of the Red Sea - Yanbu' (see page 17), Hodeida, Mas-sawa, Assab and Suwakin - once displayed similar architectural styles, developed in response to the harsh climate of hot and humid summers, brief winters and sparse rainfall. Hardly any examples of the period have survived in most of those cities.
Suwakin, for instance, once Sudan's premier port, was totally abandoned by its population many years ago, and its splendid buildings are degenerating into heaps of rubble beyond repair or restoration.
But in Old Jiddah the traditional buildings did survive. In the narrow streets and alleys of the town, cramped by the encompassing city walls, the traditional houses were built cheek by jowl to use every square meter of precious land; the bigger houses were three or four stories high, creating deep and welcome shadows in the pedestrian passageways below. It was, as T. E. Lawrence called it in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "a remarkable town."
Built of local coral limestone hand-hewn into square-cut blocks and laid in lime mortar, reinforced with timber beams and faced with white or tinted plaster, the houses displayed a marvelous symmetry. The windows of the buildings were masked by elaborately carved wooden shutters and latticed screens. These bay windows (rawasheen, singular roshan) were the most distinguishing feature of the houses, projecting well beyond the walls of the building to catch every passing breath of wind.
The focus of social life in the house, the rawasheen were large enough for a small group of people to take their ease in cool comfort behind the privacy of the screens. On some of the finer houses the bay windows are linked horizontally by decorated canopies and catwalks; some vertically linked examples form a single huge roshan two or three stories in height. The elegant carvings and decorations were not confined to the teakwood panels and grills. The external plasterwork covering the coral blocks was richly incised with geometric patterns and, sometimes, inlaid with decorative stones and pebbles.
There was not, of course, any local timber available that was suitable for the wooden facades and balconies; most of it, teak or other hardwoods, was imported from India. Craftsmen to work on the buildings were plentiful, however. Thanks to Jiddah's position as an international transshipment port, the city sustained a large work force of masons, carpenters, metalworkers, plasterers, woodcarvers and locksmiths.
The master builder, usually a local man, laid out the construction of a new building by a deceptively simple system. No drawings were ever prepared for the structure to be built. The master mason set out the floor plan using a traditional measure, the qiddah - equal to about 58 centimeters (23 inches) - which divided into eighteen qirat. With no tools other than a measuring board, the master builder would mark out the positions of walls, windows, doors, supporting beams and so on. The qiddah measure was used throughout the Red Sea region, and the common use of this system is one reason for the consistent architectural harmony that characterizes Old Jiddah. The system may have looked simple, but it needed a high degree of skill and experience to make its application a success.
One of the most famous of the city's merchants' dwellings is the house of the Nasif family. As well as being a classic example of the traditional house, with some fifty ornately decorated rooms on four floors, the outside of the Nasif house boasted the only tree in Jiddah. Letters for the Nasif family marked "the house by the tree" were certain of delivery. The tree stands to this day, and the Nasif house - a gift to the nation by the Nasif family – is open to the public and looked after by the Ministry of Education. Full of exquisite workmanship beautifully restored, the house also holds the noted Islamic library of 6,000 volumes collected by Shaykh Muhammad 'Abd al-Rahman al-Nasif.
Other notable houses, such as Bayt Sharbatly and Bayt Jughda, have become local museums and thus have a new lease on life. The Noorwali house is considered to represent the ultimate in the local traditional builder's art, its monumental overall dimensions perfectly balanced yet showing great delicacy in detail.
The conservation projects in Old Jiddah were not without occasional setbacks. Several fine traditional buildings fell to the demolition machinery of the developers. Among them was Bayt Baghdadi, once the residence of trie former Ottoman governor, later the home of the famed British explorer of Arabia, H. St. John Philby, and subsequently Aramco's first office building in the city. In 1982 a serious fire in the heart of Old Jiddah totally destroyed more than a dozen traditional buildings. Some losses have been suffered by structural collapse and accidental damage, and the problems of maintenance and repair on remaining buildings have not yet been entirely solved.
Nevertheless, the main objectives of the preservation and enhancement of the Old Jiddah area have by and large been reached. The meteoric growth of the city has not obliterated Old Jiddah, and revised regulations and development controls are now in force that afford some protection to its architectural heritage. The area, refurbished by careful landscaping and sympathetic improvements - including the creation of shady public open spaces with seats and fountains, to be used as social and leisure meeting places - has awakened Jiddah's citizens to the virtues and advantages of conservation.
More valuable still, Jiddah's initiative and example has alerted other cities in Saudi Arabia to reflect on ways to safeguard their own examples of local heritage. In a 1982 interview with a Saudi newspaper about the Old Jiddah project, Mayor Muhammad Sa'id Farsi said, "We want future generations of Saudis to see what our fathers did before us."
Whether they will or not is for a future time to say; but in any event, a magnificent beginning has been made. The present generation may count itself fortunate that a heritage has been safeguarded and its examples cherished.
John Christie, OBE, served 17 years as a British diplomat in Jiddah and other cities of the Arab world. He is a director of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce in London and edits Gulf States Newsletter on Arabian Gulf affairs.