Jeddah’s Historic Al Balad in Saudi Arabia
Al Balad is the historic quarter of Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and its commercial center on the coast of the Red Sea. Al Balad was an ancient trade city and its famous traditional buildings built with coral and decorated with latticed windows are still standing. It is a fascinating place and no visit to Jeddah is complete without seeing its historic district.
The houses in Al Balad date back to the 16th - 19th centuries, during which Jeddah grew from a small fishing settlement to a fortified wall city. Jeddah was an important port on the Indian Ocean trade route and had become the gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Muslim annual pilgrimage, Hajj, contributed greatly to Jeddah's growth and prosperity.
Historic Jeddah’s, or al Balad's, Roshan tower houses are an outstanding example of Islamic architecture. After the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the local merchants benefitted from the increased trade, and started building lavishly decorated houses for themselves. In addition, the rooms on the ground floor were rented out for shops and the pilgrimages to Mecca gave the owners an opportunity to provide accommodation for these visitors.
The façades were decorated with wood lattice that helped not only with the air circulation but also provided privacy for the people inside, especially women. The small secluded balconies and windows, rawasheen (plural of roshan), were large enough for women to sit and look out on the street below, at the same time giving them full privacy. The word roshan is a Persian word meaning an elevated window which lets in plenty of light.
The teak and mahogany that was used was brought to Jeddah from Africa and India since the local palm trees were not strong enough. The coral used in masonry, however, came from the Red Sea.
All across Al Balad, the houses were built closely next to one another to protect them from the sun and keeping them in the shade as much as possible. The narrow alleyways between the buildings are still lined with shops and souks selling anything from spices to perfume and shoes.
In 2014, UNESCO added Al Balad to its list of world heritage monuments, describing the area as ‘an outstanding reflection of the Red Sea architectural tradition’. During the oil boom locals moved away from the old town and Al Balad was neglected but the city is now making serious efforts to restore these historic buildings.