Like London with its row houses and New York with its brown-stones, Jiddah, Saudi Arabia's chief Red Sea port, has a distinctive architectural style of its own: lofty town houses heavy with ornate, semi-enclosed wooden balconies.
In some sections of the old town, often not far from new concrete office blocks or high-rise apartments, crowded clusters of these multi-storied dwellings are still standing. Built of coral blocks quarried from the nearby shore, they are covered with latticed balconies and heavily carved wooden doors and windows. The finest structures, once occupied by Jiddah's great mercantile establishments, are located in the heart of what was formerly the old walled city, near the principal market place or suq.
Actually, few of the picturesque town houses now left are more than 100 years old for, as the famous Swiss traveler John Lewis Burckhardt commented after a visit to the city early in the 19th century, "No buildings of ancient date are observed in Djidda, the madrepore (coralline rock) being of such a nature that it rapidly decays when exposed to the rain and moist atmosphere prevalent here." Coastal Jiddah's summertime humidity is extremely high; with age, poor foundations and salty soil also weakened the tall structures.
But the architectural style, if not the buildings themselves is old. Some local historians believe it to be of Persian origin and, if nomenclature is any guide, this may be the case. The great bay windows or oriels, for example, are called rawashin, a Persian word meaning splendid and bright. Other authorities simply describe the style as "oriental," and note that similar latticed balconies are known elsewhere in the Middle East as mashrabiyyaat. In fact, given the city's long history as a commercial center and pilgrim port, Jiddah's architecture is most likely a composite of many foreign influences.
Jiddah is known for its mixed population, and the city's carpenters are no exception. From early times, Muslim craftsmen who came as pilgrims from the far corners of Africa and Asia often stayed on to practice their trade in Mecca—and nearby Jiddah, the Holy City's gateway. Shaykh Ahmad 'Ali 'Atiyya, now over 70 but still recognized as master of the city's carpenters' guild, says he first learned woodworking from an Iraqi craftsman who had settled in Mecca. Later Shaykh Ahmad taught apprentices of his own, and he still delights in showing visitors samples of the classic abstract Islamic designs he once carved so masterfully; some of the finest woodwork still to be seen in Jiddah is the product of his hand.
Most of Jiddah's balconies are built of an East Indian redwood, much prized for its resistance to insects and humidity. Though it is difficult to work, carpenters favored this tough material because, in most cases, their handiwork had to brave the elements without benefit of varnish or paint.
The rawashin (bay windows) are the most striking feature on the façade of a typical Jiddah town house. Built on corbels or timbers projecting from the walls, these gingerbread structures traditionally varied in quality and number according to the builder's means. Their intricate panels, cornices, eaves and shutters gave maximum scope to the woodworker's art. But fine craftsmanship found expression in other features as well, features such as casements (taqaat), which, though not protruding from the wall, often displayed equally fine work. Also latticework balustrades were sometimes used along the edges of terraces or roofs (sutuh), in place of more common, open-faced brick, to exclude idle stares from neighboring houses but not cool breezes from the sea. Perhaps the most common features were small balconies with lattice screens (locally known as shish), designed to permit the occupants to see without being seen. Simple and easy to build, these balconies were favored for poorer houses, or even the side walls of finer homes, for the imported wood and the many hours of painstaking labor required to construct a true rawshan did not come cheap. These painstaking labor required to construct a true rawshan did not come cheap. These were the principal elements of the Jiddah town house façade and usually both the interior plan of the house and esthetic considerations dictated a symmetrical arrangement.
To assume, as foreign visitors sometimes do, that the closed balconies were for the exclusive use of the "harem," is an oversimplification. The rawashin often served as extensions of the family living room and might be used to entertain close friends. Moreover, the window seats were usually fitted with comfortable pillows and often even doubled as beds because the typical old town house had no rooms used solely for sleeping, and the semi-enclosed balcony was often the coolest spot in the house. Thus the ornate, latticed rawashin served at least three functions, providing privacy while also enhancing the appearance of the house and especially its ventilation.
Nevertheless the balconies were not without romantic associations. Sometimes they figured in popular love songs, such as the following, once frequently sung by masons, carpenters, and cameleers:
Greetings, O you seated in the latticedbalcony.
And exalted high above all other people.
Arise and don the tiara and bridal gown,
For you are over all other women ruling.
The widespread use of modern reinforced concrete building techniques following Saudi Arabia's post-World-War-II economic growth probably began the decline of the stately old town house, and its demise was hastened by two machines which were also newcomers to the Red Sea scene. One was the air conditioner, now commonplace in Jiddah, even, for one room at least, in lower-middle-class homes. The second was the automobile. Jiddah demolished its old, confining city walls some 25 years ago as the first step of what has now become an almost frantic expansion into the new suburbs which stretch far out along the Mecca and Medina roads. But even within the old city there was no place for wheeled vehicles in the narrow alleyways which threaded like cool canyons between the lofty old town houses. As each year passes, more of the coral block houses in the heart of the old town are being pulled down as bulldozers clear the right-of-ways for broad new boulevards.
Despite their dwindling number, however, these stately old houses are not without admirers. Some longtime residents, among them Jiddah's chief harbor pilot, and the famous scholar Muhammad Nasif, have taken pride in preserving and even modernizing their old homes. Other homes have now been converted into apartments where several families live together in a single house. A few serve as old folks' homes. But many of the finest examples, such as the famous Baghdadi house (the Bait Baghdadi, which once served as the office and home of H. St. J.B. Philby, and later as Aramco's first office in Jiddah), have recently been demolished. All that remains of their passing are a few-nostalgic photographs and a lively trade in the wood salvaged from their walls.
The city's new concrete villas and apartment buildings, though comfortable and well built, have little in common with the old town houses that once distinguished Jiddah from other cities in Saudi Arabia. The porous coral rock has given way to stucco cement and the hard East Indian redwood to softwoods imported from northern Europe. Though the city's carpenters are more numerous and active than ever, almost none has any knowledge of the old trade.
As for Shaykh Ahmad 'Ali 'Atiyya, the venerable old craftsman now lives in retirement with his son in a comfortable new home in one of the suburbs. The interior woodwork in his house is of varnished Swedish pine. Thus for some residents of Jiddah, at least, the demolition of these magnificent old buildings represents the passing not only of an architectural style but a way of life.
Harry Alter was born in the Middle East and attended school in India and Lebanon. A graduate of Yale and Johns Hopkins, he is now Aramco’s representative to the Saudi Arabian Government in the capital city of Riyadh.