The steamer Talodi, no longer rolling and pitching, made its way past a half-sunken vessel and eased through the tricky harbor channel. Behind lay Port Sudan and a rough sixteen-hour Red Sea crossing. Ahead there arose from the glistening sand littoral the ancient city of Jiddah, gateway for Muslim pilgrims to the Holy City of Mecca.
On the deck of the Talodi two American couples watched the stage-set skyline emerge from the haze. Lloyd N. Hamilton and his wife Airy were newcomers to Jiddah. Karl and Nona Twitchell had already lived there. They were, in fact, among the very few Americans at that time who knew anything about the exotic Saudi Arabian city.
It was February 15, 1933. Hamilton, a lawyer and land-lease expert for the Standard Oil Company of California, commonly called Socal, was bound upon an historic mission. He hoped to negotiate an oil concession with the government of King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, who was to become well known to the West as King Ibn Saud.
Karl Twitchell had previously made both mineral and water surveys for the King. He and his wife knew the non-Muslim enclave of Jiddah, the community of Western diplomatic and business representatives. He pointed out certain features of the old walled city that could be seen from the spacious harbor.
Lloyd Hamilton peered from under his sun helmet. The 40-year-old lawyer was about to enter a world based upon traditions extending back to Abraham. He was shortly to encounter a way of life, rich and complex, footed solidly upon deep religious faith. He and his wife and the Twitchells had only recently left behind them in America an equally complex world, but one shaken badly by the great depression.
Three years had passed since the fateful autumn of 1929. In the twelve months preceding Hamilton's voyage from Port Sudan to Jiddah, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected the 32nd President of the United States. The country had turned with shock to headlines announcing the kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. The Bonus Army had converged upon Washington.
Oddly enough, in the midst of gloom, the entertainment world in the U. S. had begun to flourish. Radio had entered upon its golden years, and Radio City was about to open in startling defiance of many doomsayers. As always, the flood of popular songs flowed without pause, and people hummed and sang "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing," and "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town." Longer lasting "standards" that came from musical theater that year were "April in Paris" and "Night and Day."
In order to combat the growth in popularity of radio, and falling receipts, the motion picture industry adopted the double-feature as standard practice. The year's leading pictures included Arrowsmith, Grand Hotel, Scarface (the story of Al Capone who still headed his multi-million-dollar corporate crime ring), and Back Street.
Two books had differing, but profound, impacts on U. S. life: Life Begins at Forty by Walter Pitkin changed the country's attitude toward middle age, and Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell gave realism in literature a big boost.
The Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, Jack Sharkey defeated Max Schmeling in fifteen rounds and brought the heavyweight prizefight title back to the U. S. from Germany, and on December 4, 1932 Walter Winchell first appeared on radio.
The America of the Hamiltons and Twitchells was undergoing many lasting changes, but no matter how much it might be altered, life in the U. S. could never seem as strange to them as that which awaited them beyond the pier at Jiddah.
Around them in the harbor the Americans could see the odd and beautiful lateen rigs of the Arab dhows, the high-ended traditional coasting vessels of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The slanting sailpole of these doughty craft fascinated the newcomers.
As they neared the pier, the Americans could see looming across the water the sagging façade of Jiddah. Buildings rose four stories, and sometimes five, in a mixed array of very old and recently built dwellings. Some of the structures were 600 years old—tradition assigns an even earlier origin to several.
The Americans saw a city that was tightly concentrated. Houses pushed up toward the sky rather than spreading out. A traveler once remarked that Jiddah slept upon its feet for long ages because there was no space to lie down.
Its architectural distinction, then, lay in the ranks of balconies that seemed to frame every window facing the sea. The Persian provenance of their design details spoke of Jiddah's past. In the opinion of Shaikh 'Abd al-Quddoos al-Mansari, historian of the city and a prominent Saudi Arabian editor and man of letters, the city may be more than 2,000 years old. It may first have been settled and built up by the Persians.
Shaikh 'Abd al-Quddoos has spoken of "the cosmopolitan color of Jiddah where Muslim and Christian live in har mony." For long centuries before the Hamiltons and the Twitchells arrived, Jiddah had the sophisticated flavor of a crossroads trading center. The word jiddah, according to Shaikh 'Abd al-Quddoos, conveys the meaning of road. Caravans came up from Yemen in old times and stopped in Jiddah on the way to Mecca. Similarly, caravans coming down from Damascus bound for Mecca halted there. For centuries before there was a Suez Canal, spice trade vessels unloaded at the famous Red Sea port, and their cargo was transferred to camels which then hauled it up into Egypt via Gaza or on to the coastal cities of Palestine and Lebanon.
Wood was precious in Jiddah, for it had to be imported for building. Therefore, it was saved for balconies, window frames and carved panels. Some of the balconies rose like the great choir lofts of Western cathedrals. They were cunningly ornamented with a variety of shutters, criss-crossed slatwork and scrollwork of Arabic motifs.
Jiddah, as the Hamiltons would learn, is hot and humid. The least breath of air from the sea is precious. The Arab tradition requires that the family quarters be protected from the eyes of strangers. Thus the colorful balconies and ornate window boxes solved the problem of letting air in and preserving privacy.
The ornamentation of the high buildings was, in the Muslim proscription, entirely floral or geometric. Some of the older buildings canted crazily; they seemed to lean toward one another over narrow labyrinths where pilgrims had walked since the days of the Prophet Muhammad. These labyrinthine ways look, as one observer remarked, as ancient as Genesis—and some think they are.
From the Talodi, the Americans could see parts of the wall built around the city in 1509 by an Egyptian king (and now torn down). The wall demarked the old city.
The narrow ways once bustled with trade in the time of the Persians and the pre-Islamic Arabs who peopled Jiddah. Then, according to Shaikh 'Abd al-Quddoos' researches, the city "disappeared" and another city—Shu 'aiba, 36 kilometers to the south—became the harbor for Mecca and Medina.
Jiddah did not altogether disappear, however, for there exists the record of a man who was sent to murder Muhammad, but whose horse got stuck in the mud "near Jiddah." In 646 the city and its piers were rebuilt, and it became the gateway to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrim.
By the time Hamilton arrived in Jiddah in 1933, change had come in the person of the man known in the West as King Ibn Saud. His conquest and consolidation of modern Saudi Arabia had been completed, and a stable national rule had been enforced. Hamilton brought with him change of a different sort—the modern oil industry—which was to provide a broad economic base for the country.
The Hamiltons and the Twitchells went ashore at Jiddah in mid-February 1933. With Twitchell's aid and assistance, Hamilton settled in, met many of the foreign enclave in the city, and began his mission. The curtain rose on the historic negotiations. But the complex world that Hamilton had left behind in the United States reached into the ancient byways of Jiddah and into the council halls of the King. The shattering effects of the great depression at home played a part in the crucial discussions between Hamilton and the King's advisors.
President Roosevelt was sworn in on Saturday, March 4, 1933, about eighteen days after Hamilton landed. On Monday, the President ordered all the U.S. banks to close, thus heading off financial panic. On April 19, the President banned all gold exports.
These distant events put a severe strain on the concession negotiations. But Hamilton and his associates persisted. On May 29, the concession agreement was signed at the palace in Jiddah by 'Abd Allah Al Sulaiman, Minister of Finance, and Hamilton.
As he stood on the deck of the Talodi and got his first look at the desert reaches that all but surround Jiddah and that flow under the wind into the stony, volcanic mountains behind the city, Lloyd Hamilton must have had some notion of the difficulties that might beset his mission. He could not, however, have foreseen the sweep of events at home that would weigh upon the negotiations at a crucial moment. Nor could he have guessed at the effect of an event that had taken place in Berlin a couple of weeks before his landing at Jiddah, an event that was to plunge the world into war and, incidentally, to defer the development of Saudi Arabian oil. On January 30, a man named Adolph Hitler had been made chancellor of Germany.