I have written about Jeddah’s UNESCO heritage site of the old city of Al Balad before and with good reason, it is one of the most interesting parts of the city and one of our favourite places to go for an evening out. A few weeks ago the city municipality had arranged a historic festival to take place over a few nights so Mr EE and I decided to go down to investigate.
Due to the festival the traffic, typically horrendous on any evening, was truly atrocious and it took us over an hour to get down to the old town. We walked up the Souk Al Alawi historic path to the Mecca Gate, the route taking us through a rather modern looking underpass and into the centre of the old town proper. There is a lot of reconstruction work going on in an attempt to preserve some of the more important historic buildings before they crumble into nothing. A lot of progress has been made in the year we have been here, however, and it is good to see the municipality looking to preserve rather than to build new.
Walking up the historic path brought us to the ‘gun square’ presided over by the Bait Naseef, (once a Royal residence of King Abdul Aziz and worthy of a post in its own right) and a neem tree reputed to be the oldest tree in Jeddah. As part of the festival a beautiful vintage fire truck had been parked by the side of the square, I meant to get a photograph of it but decided to wait until we walked back. A mistake that I now regret. What I did photograph, however, were the light projections onto the façade of the house. Changing every few minutes from one pattern to the next the designs were quite mesmerising. While we were in the square the mosques started the Athan, the call to prayer which is such an integral part of life here. Shopkeepers hurried to close their doors and people started making their way towards the nearest mosque while others congregated on the street to make their devotions, public prayer mats provided for the purpose. We walked on, moving from the square down one of the side roads towards the Al Shafi mosque.
On the way we came across a courtyard filled with artists. This courtyard, dilapidated and tumble down is usually nothing special, something we have walked past numerous times and given it no more than a casual glance, had been transformed with ribbons and lights, into an open air gallery. We wandered from stall to stall, some of the art was amateurish, other items were good in and of themselves but not to our taste. One artist really impressed us, we bought one of his oil canvasses and will look out for another piece that he has not yet finished. I have no idea if the piece really is any good or not but we are over the moon with it and it will provide us with a wonderful memory of that evening for many years to come.
Moving on we came to the Al Shafi mosque itself. The mosque, dating from around the 13th Century, is said to be the oldest in Jeddah. Made from mud and coral it is designed as an open square with a single minaret. The mosque was restored relatively recently and is therefore in excellent condition. Mr EE and I, as non-muslims, are not allowed inside but from glimpses through the doors have seen that it is very beautiful. As we were outside during prayers we did not, however, look in this time opting instead to enjoy the light shows playing over the walls and minaret.
Al Shafi Mosque
We walked from the mosque towards the Bab Makkah. This was once the start of the last and most difficult part of the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the old days Jeddah was surrounded by city walls punctuated by garrisoned gates. The walls have long since collapsed but the gates remain standing. Pilgrims would make their way through the city and, as they went through the gate, would see nothing but desert stretching out in front of them. Old pictures give a real sense of just how stark the contrast was. These days the city has expanded a long way beyond its initial limits and the Bab Makkah is nothing more than a traffic island where boys play football and some unfortunates find shelter for the night.
|Bab Makkah Once the edge of the desert, now a traffic island.|
The real joy, however, of a trip up to the Bab Makkah is the fruit and vegetable souk along the way. Crowded with carts selling every type of produce you can imagine the street is heaving and cheerful. The odd (brave) driver inches through the crowd but by and large this is a pedestrian zone of organised chaos and a good place to buy a bottle of water and banana or orange to refresh energy levels that almost always sag in the night time humidity.
|Fruit and Vegetable Souk near the Bab Makkah|
Leaving the souk we made our way through the quieter back streets towards the festival area again. We found more open air art galleries where ruined buildings were transformed into showcases, a dance and music display and, rather incongruously, a Toyota stand promoting their latest models. Further on there were stalls selling a range of antiques from old keys and locks to bicycles and ancient record players. Everyone wanted us to stop and chat, a chance for a sale of course always in their mind but also a desire to talk, to find out why we were there, what we thought of their city. There was more, much more, to the festival but by this stage we were exhausted and made our way home for the night passing recreations of old fashioned pilgrimages on the way.
I doubt people who have not lived here would imagine Saudis enjoying festivals like this, gathering together to celebrate history and culture and welcoming visitors into their midst at the same time. While it is hardly an every day occurrence festivals like this are not unusual here (there was a food festival running concurrently and nearby towns had flower and rose festivals at around the same time). Jeddah has a reputation as a rather dull posting but, when you start to really look for things, there is a lot going on.