Preserving Jeddah’s history
By : Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was alarmed by the news item that this newspaper carried on Thursday saying that 30 buildings in the old part of Jeddah are on the verge of collapse.
What were even more worrying were the comments of the residents in the area who claimed that the authorities are doing nothing to restore or demolish the buildings.
And indeed, all one has to do to verify these accounts, is to walk downtown in the old part of Jeddah and one will see many buildings in an advanced state of decay. This despite the fact that old Jeddah was finally added to UNESCO’s famous list of World Heritage sites in 2014 after many years of lobbying on the part of Saudi authorities.
“Historic Jeddah is an outstanding reflection of the Red Sea architectural tradition, a construction style once common to cities on both coasts of the Red Sea, of which only scant vestiges are preserved outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the nominated property,” says the UNESCO website.
“The style is characterized by the imposing tower houses decorated by large wooden Roshan built in the late 19th century by the city’s mercantile elites and also by the lower coral stone houses, mosques, souqs and small public squares that together compose a vibrant space.”
While it is true that some of the houses, such as the Nassif House, have been beautifully restored, other poorer buildings are literally falling to pieces. This is a shame as the whole old part of Jeddah is of immense historical and cultural value, one that continues to attract thousands of tourists every month, both Saudi and foreign. UNESCO also points out the importance that the city of Jeddah attained due to it being the official entry point for thousands of foreign pilgrims coming every year to perform Haj and Umrah in Makkah and Madinah. This contributed to the vibrant multicultural population that Jeddah has long had, and which can be seen in downtown Jeddah with its Yemeni, Pakistani, Indian and Saudi shopkeepers.
UNESCO also points out the importance that the city of Jeddah attained due to it being the official entry point for thousands of foreign pilgrims coming every year to perform Haj and Umrah in Makkah and Madinah.
While Jeddah Municipality regularly holds cultural festivals in old Jeddah, which attract many tourists, it seems to lack a concrete plan of action of how to handle the crumbling buildings whose owners either do not have the financial resources to restore the buildings, or perhaps do not even care to do so.
This is where the government should step in with expert advice and even offers of financing to restore these buildings. The government could even offer to buy some of the worse-off buildings and then have them restored. This would be an investment in the historical memory of Jeddah.
“The cityscape of historic Jeddah is the result of the important exchange of human values, technical know-how, building materials and techniques across the Red Sea and along the Indian Ocean routes between the 16th and the early 20th centuries,” says UNESCO. “Jeddah’s Roshan tower houses are an outstanding example of a typology of buildings unique within the Arab and Muslim world. Their specific aesthetic and functional patterns — absence of courtyard, decorated Roshan façades, ground floor room used for offices and commerce, rooms rented for pilgrims — reflect their adaptation to both the hot and humid climate of the Red Sea and to the specificity of Jeddah.”
The old buildings of Jeddah are indeed very charming and beautiful with their coral stone foundations and elaborately carved wood Roshans, which serve to block the hot sunlight from entering the homes while allowing sea breezes the chance to enter and cool down the residences.
All Saudis, especially the younger generations, should visit this part of Jeddah to see how our ancestors lived before air-conditioning existed. We must not allow the memory of those harder times be obliterated from our collective consciousness. After all, there was life before glitzy malls and marble-clad buildings and a very interesting life too.
The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.
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