From Riyadh to Jeddah is an hour and a half by plane. By car it’s a full day’s journey. Travelling by camel as the ancient Nabateans did would take a couple of weeks. We flew, and as soon as we stepped off the plane we noticed the humidity, so very, very different from Riyadh.
Jeddah's a port on the Red Sea and is believed to have been founded as a fishing village in 522 BC by the Quda’a tribe. This nomadic people travelled from Yemen, choosing eventually to settle in the Makkah region of Arabia. In the first century AD it became a post on the Nabatean trade route. Camel caravans from Yemen would stop at Madain Salah and then Jeddah, laden with spices, frankincense and myrrh. The derivation of Jeddah is Jaddah, which is Arabic for grandmother. The tomb of the Biblical Eve, the grandmother of everyone, is meant to lie in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Al Balad, Jeddah’s old city. So many stories and so much colour.
Nowadays Jeddah’s the largest city in Makkah province and the entry point for overseas pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. Waiting for our flight at Riyadh airport, we couldn't help but notice the distinctively clad pilgrims on their way to Mecca to perform Umrah. Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca that, unlike Haj, can be undertaken at any time of the year. Just as a word of explanation, every Muslim is expected to perform Haj at least once in his lifetime. The Haj pilgrimage to Mecca takes place after Ramadan and before second Eid. At such times Jeddah airport is literally swamped by multitudes of visiting pilgrims.
History aside, it was our early morning visit to the UNESCO Heritage site of Al Balad, Jeddah’s old city, that was the highlight of our Jeddah visit. We began at the Eastern Gate, standing in the still sleepy street against a backdrop of teetering high storied houses and listened as our guide set the scene. The distinctive house frontages, mashrabaiat and rawashaan, he said, dated back to pre-Islamic times. Sadly many of these are dilapidated and badly in need of repair.
At the heart of Al Balad is Souk Al- Alawi. Here we explored shops selling frankincense, saffron and a multitude of other interesting dried spices.I must admit I love the colour and smell of places like these, and the array of merchandise that is so rich in tradition and history. There’s always something new to be seen that sets me wondering.
Al Shafei mosque is central to Al Balad and one of Jeddah’s oldest mosques. We saw the minaret before we saw the newly renovated mosque.
Then back outside and a final walk through the Bedouin souk towards the Western Gate. Here brightly coloured fabrics and clothing stopped us in our tracks.