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Volume 12, Number 1January 1961

In This Issue

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City By The Sea

Jiddah, ancient Red Sea port, is once again a new city, as it has been many times in the past.

One day in 1945, the man on a bulldozer maneuvered his monster into position and gunned the engine—and that was the beginning of the end for the ancient wall that surrounded the city of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

While all of this was going on, Suzanne Perkins was busy some 9,000 miles to the west, as a secretary in an airline office in Kansas City.

And, the unlikeliest thing that could possibly, have entered her mind was the idea that the wall-shattering in Jiddah could ever have any significance in her life.

But Suzanne is Mrs. Sam Clevenger now. And she doesn't live in Kansas City. She's a new resident of the new Jiddah: the vigorous port city that has had a five-fold population growth in a decade and a half and is the home of some 200,000 people.

Much of what she sees today as she moves about this Red Sea metropolis had its beginnings when the bulldozers finished the work that had been ordered by the late great King Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa'ud.

At the same time, much of what she sees was standing when a little group of colonists flung a load of tea into Boston Harbor. These old buildings symbolized the new Jiddah 200 years ago—one of many new Jiddahs that have evolved over the centuries.

Jiddah was a thousand years old when Columbus discovered America. It had been one of the world's great trading centers for at least 150 years when Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24. And this, of course, is dealing only with more recent times, for Jiddah, according to legend, is the burial place of Eve.

The reason Mrs. Clevenger is living in the new Jiddah is that her husband is deputy company representative for Aramco in western Saudi Arabia. With other Aramco families, they and their two girls live in a palm-shaded section in the eastern part of the city, just off Mecca Road, which leads east forty-five miles to Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam and the goal each year of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Only Muslims may enter.

Mrs. Clevenger would make a good tour guide for visitors to Jiddah, for she knows the city well and is enthusiastic about its growth. A trip with her reveals how much newness there is in Jiddah . . . new homes, new business and professional buildings, new schools, new apartment buildings. One section of town boasts many new businesses—a dairy, a bottling plant, a marble works, a tire-recapping shop, a printing plant and many others.

One of the most modern buildings in Jiddah is the Pilgrim Center, a big structure at Jiddah International Airport where pilgrims from the far corners of the eastern world wait until it is time to go to Mecca.

"During the last pilgrimage," Mrs. Clevenger says, "an airplane either landed or took off every seven minutes."

It is a statistic that is hardly surprising, for three-quarters of a million people came to Mecca by air for the pilgrimage of 1960 (1379 by the calendar of Islam).

Along Airport Road, Jiddah's newness continues. After the spacious, air-conditioned Kanandra Hotel comes one new building after another—more commercial enterprises, hospitals, and government buildings. King Sa'ud Street, a fast-changing business district, exhibits Jiddah as a city in transition. Intermingled with the very newest in offices, stores and hotels are some of the city's oldest structures, dating back to times that people have forgotten.

Mrs. Clevenger grows especially enthusiastic when she talks about shopping.

"You can buy anything here," she says, "if you know where to look. Some of the stores are just beautiful."

But Mrs. Clevenger's enthusiasm doesn't stop with the big, modern shops. She finds the old main suq just as fascinating. Here are block after block of tiny, open-front shops, set along a narrow, unpaved street. In many places the street is roofed over with corrugated iron, boards or canvas, and although the suq is hot beautiful in most senses of the word, it has a charm that is hard to deny—even when it comes to dodging donkey carts and occasional sheep and goats, which, in turn, are trying to dodge the 1960 automobiles. The old suq must look today very much as it looked during the last century—and the century before that. Most of what is Jiddah today dates to the seventeenth century as a settled area, with site of the old city 12 miles south at Ras al-Aswad. History attributes the original settlement to merchants during the caliphate of 'Uthman (644-656 A.D.).

As its commercial importance grew, Jiddah was building its history… The Turkish occupation… the driving out of the Turks by the british in 1916 … the founding of the new Kingdom of Hijaz… and finally, the liberation of the city in 1925 by the warrior-ruler who unified the Arabian peninsula for the first time: King Abd al-Aziz. But during most of its history, much of Jiddah’s importance has grown out of her position on the Red Sea.

Now, as in centuries past, ship come in from every part of the globe. They bring everything imaginable, from ladies apparel and accessories to trucks and heavy machinery. It is here at the port that visitors watch the core of the city’s economy, for international trade has been the foundation of her prosperity for 500 years.

Newcomers, like Mrs. Clevenger, and travelers passing through find that Jiddah exerts a two fold impact: first are the impressive signs of growth and modernization, best seen in the city’s new homes, stores and offices; second, is that certain atmosphere of self assurance—both seen and sensed—that one finds in all great cosmopolitan centers.

And, why not? Jiddah is the commercial and financial center of the Kingdom. For hundreds of generations, it has been carrying on international trade and banking, not with just a few countries, but with the world. Foreign embassies and consulates, branches and agencies of foreign firms are a taken-for-granted part of the local scene.

One top businessman epitomized the Jiddah viewpoint: "Jiddah is not of the desert, the camel and the Bedouin." Just as a New Yorker might say: "Manhattan is not of the corn belt, the cow and the farmer."

And, so, when the man of Jiddah views the changes in his city, he’s pleased, but he’s not awed by it. Hasn't Jiddah changed many times?

"We like Jiddah very much, indeed," Mrs. Clevenger says, describing the advantages.

The Children are happy. We have a school sponsored by American companies that have branches or representatives here. It has an American principal, and there’s one teacher for every two grades."

The social life is rewarding and pleasurable, too.

"It’s quite international," Mrs. Clevenger says, "as it would be in a cosmopolitan city like this. Our friends are Saudi Arabs, Europeans, and Americans."

Mr. Clevenger is one of only about a dozen Americans with Aramco in Jiddah. The rest are Saudi Arabs. The Company’s functions in Jiddah are confined to affairs that require discussion with the Saudi Arab government and to the operation of a large bulk plant for the distribution of petroleum products. The plant has storage capacity for approximately a million barrels of products—aviation and automotive gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, light and heavy fuel oil, and liquid asphalt.

These are products that are indispensable to the homes, the hotels, the business, the industry and the traffic of the city—the new Jiddah that started to come into being when the bulldozer crashed into the wall back in 1945.

This article appeared on pages 21-24 of the January 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1961 images.