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Volume 18, Number 2March/April 1967

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Memories Of Old Jiddah

The siege was over and the Sultan of Najd had come. His name was ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud.

Written by Daniel Van Der Meulen
Illustrated by Don Thompson

By memory has a curious quality. It mixes the grand with the trivial so inextricably that I can't really remember the one without also remembering the other. Perhaps it is because most memories are a blend of the small and the large. Or perhaps it is just my own way of remembering. Either way, that's how I remember Jiddah—as the grand and trivial together, a mixture of historic event and personal anecdote, a great king stepping into history and a frightened horse galloping in panic toward the Red Sea...

The first time I saw Jiddah it was half in ruins. That was at the beginning of 1926. King 'Ali ibn Husain had just fled, after a year under siege, leaving the city and his kingdom to the man who would soon begin to reshape the destinies of the Arabian Peninsula: 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, then merely the Sultan of Najd, later to be king of a new country to be called Saudi Arabia.

The siege had left its mark on Jiddah. Bombardment had wrecked parts of the city. The inhabitants themselves, when fuel became scarce, had destroyed other sections. Famine and disease had killed thousands and everyone was desperately short of water. Thus the people were more relieved that their ordeal was over than concerned that the enemy had won. They knew, of course, that the armies that had taken their city were Wahhabis, a Muslim sect that advocated a strict adherence to the codes of Islam, and that they would soon be expected to adhere to that stern code themselves. But to a city weary of war that was hardly a matter of urgent concern. As it was to turn out, the impact of Wahhabi discipline was philosophically accepted by the people of Jiddah, and deeply interested the foreign onlookers.

In those days I was the consul of the Netherlands in Jiddah. Being consul was not a position of spectacular importance but there were responsibilities of an important nature, one of which was tending to the welfare of pilgrims from what is now Indonesia, but was then the Dutch East Indies. It was a long way from the East Indies to Mecca, the Holy City of Islam, but since the islands were heavily and fervently Muslim and since Islam requires that all Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life, thousands of believers annually were making their way across the Indian Ocean to the shores of Arabia and thence to Mecca as the Prophet had commanded. Many, unfortunately, could not afford the return trip too and turned to our consulate for help. Thus from the moment of arrival, I was a more than ordinarily interested spectator to the birth of what is perhaps the last theocratic state in the world.

Prior to his capture of Jiddah and to his inauguration as King of Najd wal Hijaz wa mulhakatiha, the Twin Monarchy of Najd and the Hijaz and Dependencies, 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud had demonstrated that he was a military leader of considerable skill and courage. But after his conquest and reorganization of the largest unified Arab state since the first days of Islam, he convinced an onlooking world that he was also a ruler and a statesman of no little ability, a man who could both introduce modern concepts into an ancient land yet uphold, in all sincerity, the strictest tenets of Islam.

In the early days, for example, after his last great conquests, when he had to raise money for his new kingdom, King 'Abd al-'Aziz instituted an immediate search for gold. He had learned from the Old Testament that during King Solomon's reign, gold from Arabia had been sent to Jerusalem. He was determined to find whence it came. With American technical help he located one of the mines of Mahd adh-Dhahab, "The Cradle of the Gold," not far from Medina. The return was disappointing as it happened, but it introduced the idea that the mineral wealth of the land ought to be sought and used— the first step toward the historic decision taken to permit what was to become the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to search for oil.

One of the king's first moves was to encourage pilgrimage to Mecca, which had been cut off by World War I and then discouraged by bands of raiders, who lurked along the pilgrimage routes, demanding tribute from all who passed, and by corrupt administrators. Since this was a blow to Islam, 'Abd al-'Aziz immediately inaugurated a stern campaign to stamp out the brigands who infested the lonely roads to Mecca and Medina—so stern that the Westerners in Jiddah were sometimes disturbed. The king, however, was unmoved. "You believe that I am cruel," he said to me one day, "but you are wrong. I know how my Bedouins must be governed. I dealt out exemplary punishment in such a way that the rumor thereof spread to the furthermost areas of the desert. If Allah pleases I shall not have to do this again for a long time."

The king's restoration of order, however, was only the beginning. Now that the pilgrims were coming in greater numbers, the king realized, he would also have to cope with other problems. Thus he introduced motor vehicles, primitive and ramshackle though they were, to help transport pilgrims to Mecca from Jiddah. Thus he also called in medical and public health experts from the West to combat the epidemics that used to break out among the pilgrims whenever great masses of them congregated. In such ways, the king brought progress into his country while at the same time introducing a stricter observation of Islamic rules and teachings than most Muslims had ever known before.

The impact of the king's theocratic approach was felt almost at once in Jiddah. At the regular hours of prayer, as the muezzin's voice called the faithful to prayer, the devout Muslim immediately dropped whatever he was doing and hurried to the nearest mosque. At such moments, the streets and shops emptied as if an air raid siren had sounded. In banks, heaps of Maria Theresa thalers and stacks of gold coin stood untended and untouched during prayers. Teeming suqs fell silent, and in the qahwas where men of leisure tranquilly sipped coffee, the stimulating beverage cooled while worshippers forsook the day's pleasures to contemplate those of the morrow. The steady ryhthm of work was broken periodically during the day as customers—and shopkeepers—abruptly vanished in mid-sentence, to attend more pressing business.

Foreigners, of course, were not affected in any important way by the new, stricter rules, but they were affected. All men, for instance, were obliged to let their beards grow: the Prophet himself had been bearded, had he not? It was a thin time for the barbers, for whoever shaved off a man's beard was rewarded with lusty strokes of the stick, as was the impious customer who sought the forbidden treatment. And although we Westerners, especially those among us who enjoyed consular privileges, were not subject to the new law, we did not relish walking about beardless in an otherwise wholly bearded society. So we decided to comply with the new custom voluntarily. A competition was organized to see who could grow the fullest beard in the shortest time. The redheads among us fared the worst. Not only are red beards rarely beautiful on a red, sunburned face, but some were spotted with dark and light patches. These men were the source of much merriment, to the Muslims as well as to us, and were thankful to be exempt from the country's laws. They were also first to return to the clean-shaven style. I myself soon grew a full black beard. The Arabs with whom I usually associated looked at me full of surprise, explaining: "It suits you! Now you are no longer a youth but a man. Come let me embrace you!"

Wahhabi teachings also frowned on music and on smoking. As a special concession, consuls were authorized to own record players (which in those days had to be cranked by hand and were called Gramophones) as long as the sound did not carry to the streets to beguile true believers, but smoking was another matter. Although the ban didn't apply to the foreigners (whose official standing had given Jiddah the nickname Bilad al-Kanasil—the Town of Consuls) most decided against taking advantage of the concession in public rather than risk a scene. And a scene almost certainly ensued if one encountered a policeman, who would commonly strike the cigarette from a smoker's lips without a word of warning, for how was he to know that a sin was no longer a sin when committed by a consul?

As I said, however, these were minor irritations, not to be compared with the opportunity of being an eyewitness to the development of a new country.

And there were personal compensations too. I, for example, was delighted to live in a country when I could ride again. This was in the time when prominent citizens of Jiddah—including some of us foreign consuls—still kept riding horses. I was a pretty good horseman and when I became Netherlands consul in Jiddah I was thrilled to think that I might be able to ride a horse from the country which raised the world's finest, and even more excited to learn that there was such a noble animal available in the stable of the consulate that my predecessor had left behind—a jet-black, high-spirited stallion called Aswad or "Blackie." I was delighted—at least until I tried him. Aswad was well-fed and in very fine condition when I came to Jiddah, but he needed exercise badly and was raring to go. I had to fight to even get into the saddle and the moment I was seated he tried to throw me. I held on but as we moved toward the Medina Gate, soldiers and onlookers respectfully and safely standing aside, he continued to buck and fight and I noticed that although the vice-consul, quietly seated on his fastest racer, was saying nothing, he was not impressed with my horsemanship.

Aswad's successor was a dapple-gray pure Arab mare called Marzuqa and from then on my afternoon rides in the desert became for a short while a joy. But then one day I ran into trouble.

On a certain afternoon I was riding through the low sand dunes that stretch out in a wide strip alongside the coast of the Red Sea. I was alone and I was many miles from Jiddah. It was utterly quiet and peaceful. I noticed some desert rats digging swiftly into the sand with their strongly-developed hind legs, saw a fox trotting by, and then, quite unexpectedly and rather close, a Bedouin camp. Suddenly a pack of hungry, half-wild dogs came storming out of the camp snarling and yelping with rage. Marzuqa reacted immediately and raced away toward the sea. At first the dogs were able to keep up and at one point we were surrounded. I could almost hit the nearest ones with my whip and I could see their long teeth flashing close to my stirrups. But slowly we pulled away from them, crossed the last dunes and sped out onto the beach. The dogs, exhausted, gave up and disappeared. But Marzuqa, still frantic with fright, recklessly raced on. Suddenly she dashed across a subterranean system of holes dug by the desert rats and the sand gave way. Her left front leg disappeared right down to the shoulder. At that speed there was no chance to stop and Marzuqa somersaulted twice and landed violently on her back. So did I, and the last thing I remembered was sailing through the air and landing many yards away with a terrific impact on my shoulder and back. I passed out and lay unconscious for a long time. When I came to I felt a terrible pain in my back, A little farther away lay my horse, com pletely motionless. I slowly moved my head, my limbs. Everything seemed to be all right. I tried to sit up. It hurt but I managed. After a while I cautiously stood up, and saw that Marzuqa was moving too. She turned around, tried to stand up, managed to do it, very carefully. We stared at one another with unseeing eyes, or so it seemed, then Marzuqa pointed her head in the direction of Jiddah and started to walk away, very slowly. I grabbed the reins just in time. Leaning heavily against her neck, I plodded back the long way home, frightened and exhausted.

It dawned on me how very lucky I had been after all. What would have happened if I had broken anything and if my horse had walked away without me? Where would my friends or servants have started to search for me when Marzuqa had come back alone? And what would have happened to me in the meantime?

So, wistfully, I decided to move along with the times and buy a car. It turned out to be a good decision and in my 1924-model automobile I made many long and sometimes quite adventurous trips in the desert around Jiddah—but that's another story.

Daniel van der Meulen, a Dutch diplomat, explorer, traveler, and lecturer is the author of The Wells of Ibn Sa'ud, Faces in Shern, Aden to Madhramaut and other books.

This article appeared on pages 31-33 of the March/April 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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