A Gateway to Mecca Holds On to Its History
The timeless stream of Muslims en route to Mecca, Islam’s holiest of cities, long ago transformed the Red Sea gateway of Jeddah into a thriving metropolis.
It is the Rome of Arabia in terms of pilgrim traffic and trade. Unlike much of the Arab world, Jeddah has managed to build around, instead of on top of, its history. In the Old Jeddah district, where silk route merchants would still feel pretty much at home, the original walls have been torn down, though the gates were left standing.
The rest remains a protected urban area; many of the houses are made of coral quarried from reefs in the Red Sea. The more impressive homes, of traditional carved wooden architecture, belonged to the merchant clans who filled their coffers from the pilgrim trade. Today some of these houses are museums; others are crumbling because their successful owners have moved their families to modern high-rises.
Old Jeddah’s souk is considered the best left in Saudi Arabia; with most souks having morphed into shopping malls hawking Western-made goods and fashions, this vibrant place has retained much of its traditional flavor.