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Balad - Soul of Jeddah

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Travel Notes: Travel-Write: Middle East Travel Articles: Balad

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As a child, I dreamt of Aladdin and the fabulous 1,001 Arabian Nights' tales; just wishing to be there when it happened.

The closest place one can get is Balad, literally translated as The Town, a part of Old Jeddah.

The Soul of Jeddah

Balad attracted me the very first time I saw it.

It was evening, with the sun slowly slipping into the Red Sea.

As night begins to spread darkness over Balad, the narrow stone-topped lanes, treaded by travellers and traders for centuries, comes to life; showcasing a vibrant market place teaming with traders and street hawkers, shouting to get the attention of bystanders.

This reminded me of the crowded market streets back in India; giving me a feeling of being at home.

To the tourist it is confusing if you are not sure of where you are going, as you are jostled and pushed along by the teaming crowd.

I decided to come back the next day for a more leisurely exploration.

The morning was quiet and cool as I started criss-crossing the lanes; stopping by to have a closer look at the centuries old, multi-storied buildings.

Almost all the buildings house shops in the ground floor and residential quarters in the upper floors. The architecture of the buildings are unique for this region, in that they are built mainly from rectangular mud bricks or cut stones.

The lower portions of the walls are made of stone bricks while the mud bricks are predominantly used in the upper walls; with latticed wooden poles placed horizontally, running the entire length of the walls (at 4 to 5 feet heights).

The architecture fired up my engineering brain, to think of the advantages offered by this method of construction.

Wood is flexible in compression and distributes the load evenly to the lower bricks, also effectively stopping any cracks in the wall developing beyond them; which makes repair work easier, in addition to increasing the life of the building.

The engineering mind of the medieval Arabs could be easily gauged by looking at these beautifully constructed multi-storied buildings, which have withstood the ravages of time and harsh environment of Arabia.

Historical Jeddah

Jeddah started as a fishing village, when the Quadaa fishermen settled here some 2,500 years ago; its natural harbour and reef offering a good base for their fishing boats.

The city grew as an important trading outpost, on the trading routes between Yemen and Europe, and was fortified with limestone coral walls as early as 1,000 AD; according to noted traveller, Nasir-I-Kusuro.

The earlier fortification had two gates; one facing east towards Mecca and the other towards the sea. The fortification was strengthened in the 16th Century, to protect the city from Portuguese attack, with six watchtowers and gates: Bab Makkah facing East; Bab Sharif facing South; Bab Al Bunt, Bab Sharaf and Bab Al Madinah facing North; and Bab Al Magharibah facing West.

Jeddah's turbulent history saw it alternatively coming under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s Mamalukes and the Saudi’s of Central Arabia; until the Saudi King, Abdul Aziz took over the Western province of Hejaz, including the city of Jeddah.

The King Abdul Aziz Historical Square, which is at the heart of the Balad, is where the people of Jeddah welcomed King Abdul Aziz and his army on the 23rd of September, 1924. This day of annexing the Hejaz province is celebrated as a National Day in Saudi Arabia.

Balad is one big market place that contains many specialised markets.

Souq Al-Nada:
Showcases glittering and eye catching Arabian, African and Asian gold and silver ornaments.

Souq Al-Jamia:
The textile market, named after the Bedouin tribes who used to sell textiles, spices and grains here.

Souq Al-Alawi:
That cuts through Balad, from east to west.

Gabel Street Souq:
Selling an assorted variety of wares that includes spices, electronics, perfumes, dates, honey and household articles.

As you walk through the Souq Al Alawi, Biet Nassif - an impressive restored building, with a 700 year old flag mast and a 15th Century cannon on its front yard - dominates the King Abdul Aziz Historical Square.

Preserving Jeddah' s Historic Buildings:
The Jeddah Historical Area Preservation Department (JHAPD) has restored a number of old and crumbling building as the Government tries to protect old buildings from demolition, in order to preserve the historical area.

The excavation of a 15th century underground water canal, bringing water from nearby mountains about 15km away, underlines the historical and archaeological wealth waiting to be uncovered in Balad.

The Al Alawi Moroccan Restaurant -- Jeddah

The Al Alawi Moroccan Restaurant is aesthetically located in a restored building with beautifully laid colourful stones on the front yard, creating a mystical medieval environment for diners wishing to taste traditional Moroccan and African cuisine.

It came as a mild cultural shock as I exited the market place of Balad, to be confronted by glittering high-rise buildings, shopping malls and the ear-piercing horns of cars; abruptly awakened from a short travel back in time, to my own Arabian Night dreamland.

By M. Ahmed Nagoor.

About The Author

M. Ahmed Nagoor is an Indian national who likes travelling; especially trekking in remote jungles, wildlife sanctuaries, National Parks and mountain ranges.

M. Ahmed Nagoor has trekked in the South Indian Rain Forests (Western Ghats) in Nilgris, Anamalais, Kerala and also in and around Chennai (Yelagiri in the Eastern Ghats).

He's also been on a trekking expedition in the Shivalik Ranges of The Himalayas, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, and has organised trekking trips for school and college students in South India; enabling them to appreciate the nature and encourage them to protect and preserve the region's limited natural resources.

Related Links

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia:
601 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Washington DC.

Saudi Arabia Magazine:
Illustrated coverage of social, cultural and historical issues (1996-2003).

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