Keeping the past alive in old Jeddah

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The UNESCO-protected historic district of Jeddah is in the midst of a large-scale restoration and renaissance that encompasses everything from its distinctive architecture to its crossbreed fusion cuisine.

Cities by the sea have their own unique ambience. There is something about being so close to open water and fresh, salty air that, for lack of a better word, makes you feel refreshed. Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea is no exception. Jeddah ghair (Jeddah is different), the saying goes; and for centuries this buzzing and thriving gate has not only welcomed spiritual pilgrims on the way to the holy city of Mecca, but also traders and passing travelers from the Arab world, East Africa, Levant and Southeast Asia. Jeddah’s historic openness and accessibility – literally and figuratively – is still present and traceable today, especially in the city’s oldest neighborhood, Al-Balad.

A winding tangle of souks, mosques and around 650 traditional buildings comfortably clustered in an area of ​​around 2.5 square kilometers, Al-Balad is best known for its impressive, ornate, multi-story coral stone tower houses in a unique way rawasheen (singular: roshan), closed balconies in meshed teak wood. These tower houses are centuries old and the weather has not been good for them. Once the imposing family homes of the city’s merchant elite, many buildings have fallen into disrepair and neglect in recent decades, due to skyrocketing maintenance costs and the lure of the city. newer and brighter neighborhoods as the borders of the city of Jeddah expanded. But there is new hope for the Old Quarter: thanks to a prestigious and hard-won UNESCO World Heritage listing (first awarded in 2014) and a new plan launched by the Historic District of Jeddah, a A department under the Saudi Ministry of Culture, Al-Balad is at the start of a large-scale, comprehensive restoration effort that spans everything from the neighborhood’s signature Hejazi architecture to its melting-pot culinary heritage.

“Italy has a leaning tower, but Al-Balad has hundreds,” says Al-Balad tour guide Abir Abusulayman. Abusulayman, the first Saudi woman to obtain a tour guide license, considers herself a local Jeddawi even though she was born in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and lived abroad for many years. In local parlance, she explains, the dramatically leaning buildings are charmingly called “relaxed”; However, it is clear that some of them are on the verge of collapse. As such, architectural restorations are the most urgent goal of the neighborhood restoration and revitalization plan.

While plans were not officially announced until September 2021, construction began several years ago with the Jeddah Historic District team focusing on saving 34 of the most urgent and most urgent buildings. architecturally significant to Al-Balad, with 56 additional buildings falling directly under the management of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, the large-scale government initiative to transform the country.

In order to maintain UNESCO’s coveted list and ensure authenticity, all building repairs must follow a strict set of guidelines, which is no small feat, given the age of the buildings in question. . While carbon dating has confirmed that some building fragments date back to 1,400 years (even the still standing minaret of Al-Shafi’i Mosque dates back to 900 years), most of Al-Balad’s tower houses have between 200 and 300 years. Made from pearl white coral stone, a breathable material that allows ventilation; crushed limestone mortar; and wood, often reused from old ships or imported from Southeast Asia, tower houses require not only authentic materials, but also original methodology and craftsmanship. The project is still in its infancy, so most of the buildings are currently in the ‘support phase’, which largely involves achieving structural solidity (in other words, making the buildings stand upright). many collapsed buildings).

While Al-Balad’s preservation plan is nothing short of ambitious, the pace of the vast project is deliberately measured, so that the whole area does not turn into a giant construction site and disrupt local life. It’s slow and meticulous, like renovating a house while living in it, as no one wants to drive out the residents of Al-Balad, many of whom are petty traders. They are a constant consideration and often form part of the conversation. Take, for example, a proposed new lighting concept, where fluorescent lighting in stores had to be replaced with warmer, softer hues in order to make the neighborhood more visually appealing to visitors. But before the idea could be implemented, locals were consulted: the many textile and fabric merchants in the neighborhood explained that bright lighting was needed to properly display colors, and the idea was therefore been abandoned.

Another example can be seen in Al-Balad’s small heritage restaurants, some of the oldest in Jeddah, many of which have been run by the same families for generations. Food in Jeddah is and always has been a fusion due to its beachfront location and key positioning as Mecca’s first official port of call, and iconic neighborhood dishes like Yemeni dishes. maassoub with added banana, or Egyptian mistake always paired with Afghani tame bread – not only provide a glimpse into the rich heritage of Jeddah, but are also incredibly delicious. With many of these family-owned eateries tucked away in Al-Balad’s maze of shady streets and alleys, the historic district of Jeddah has spearheaded efforts to rethink (and in many cases add) signage to stores to improve accessibility for residents and visitors. There has even been a campaign to add favorite local haunts like Naji Al Harbi and Foul Fattah to the Lugmety delivery app, so the signature food can be enjoyed at home and reach new audiences.

These are just a few examples of how the Jeddah Historic District team is doing everything in their power to save the soul of the neighborhood and avoid Disneyfication during restoration. No one is looking to turn Al-Balad into Aladdin’s Agrabah or an overgrown tourist destination like Venice, where all the other shops sell cheap souvenirs. “It would be my nightmare,” says Dr Rawaa Bakhsh, communications and public engagement manager for the Historic District of Jeddah. Bakhsh, like many of the (largely female) team members, is a local Jeddawi with fond childhood memories of Al-Balad. “The goal is to preserve it for my children and for the next generation. “

It’s a noble manifesto shared by all in the historic district of Jeddah, headquartered in a recently renovated historic building in the center of Al-Balad, and the sentiment extends beyond its doors. restored). Al-Balad’s brand new Royal Institute of Traditional Arts, a partnership with the Prince’s Foundation, also shares the goal. Dedicated to reviving the unique craft and architectural traditions of Al-Balad Hejazi, students learn the old world building arts including coral stone construction, decorative plaster techniques, and woodworking in the as part of a free two-year program. Located in a 200-year-old building in the heart of Al-Balad, the Royal Institute of Traditional Arts is a fantastic example of what Al-Balad’s fully restored buildings could look like (and what they could be used for. ) when the project is complete. Other buildings, previously restored as part of private projects, such as the Beit Nassif and Beit Salloum museums, offer another look at what is possible: the past, perfectly preserved. One thing remains true across the board: Whether it has regained its former glory or is respectfully reinvented for future use, Al-Balad will continue to hold on, even if it has a tendency to sag.


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