Two years before the launch of Saudi Vision 2030 in 2016, Al Balad Town was already declared a heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It was one of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s proactive efforts in realizing the first of the vision’s theme: A Vibrant Society. Diving into the modern dossier for information about the place added excitement to the visit on the second day in Jeddah. It pays to know how much work was done by the government in restoring the buildings and the gates surrounding the area of Al Balad.
So there I was at one of the gates of Al Balad after a fifteen-minute drive from Al Hamra in a tropical morning of October 31st. I arrived earlier than expected. There weren’t too many people hovering around yet.
The first sight of the old buildings made my heart skip a bit. I kind of felt their welcoming ganders. Like they smiled and waved their windows.
I started gadding about the site after a few minutes of pausing for a thankful moment. The weather was perfect and I could feel lightness and peace as I began peering through the ancient buildings of different heights and colors. The place is living up to its name as Historical Old Jeddah.
I get chills up and down my spine whenever I’m in a place like this. No matter how transitory, the feeling of being able to travel back in time via these old houses was such a privilege. That time when the place was still a small fishing village about 350 BC turned port of Makkah Muharrmah in 647 AD up to a point it became Jeddah. A city that got its position as an international trading port towards two Holy Cities from different parts of the world.
Al Balad played a vital role in said achievement primarily because the now second largest city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia started at its base. No wonder it’s been regarded as Jeddah’s historic core and the survived quarter since 647 AD therein makes for its reputation as the most prominent traditional centre in Kingdom.
I’m privileged to have set foot on Al Balad’s antique floors just for that reason alone. These coral-oriented houses shows off a one of a kind woodwork on doors and large windows, which comprised the magnetizing appeal of this historical site.
Vibrant colors of the traditional houses along with the unified forces of Old Jeddah’s architectural styles, also cast a spell to visitors. These handiworks are original for this kind of structures in the Arab region, a true pride of every Saudi.
Another common feature of each house is to have the ground floor rented for business purposes.
“The architectural character of Al Balad symbolizes the Islamic architecting style of Persian, Mamluk, Ottoman and others” (Jeddah Municipality, 2014). “This blend of various architectural and traditional structures has made a bona fide natural style of building, known as Hejazi architectural or Hejazi city” (Bagader, 2014).
Amid all these breathtaking vistas, what caught my attention the most is the presence of pigeons all throughout. They’re ubiquitous in the place. I felt unsecured at one point because of the deafening silence but as soon as I see pigeons fly and freely roaming around, I felt an overwhelming safety and security. I now comprehend the rationale behind the symbol of peace. The flocks of pigeons changed my perspective of the place. Their oneness with everything I saw came as a strange but assuring promise of a beautiful day. They seem to naturally coalesce into the old structures as if they’re also there since the conception. Their sense of confidence in the midst of strangers made me think they’re the real owners of this place.
The mosques’ minarets and the old buildings’ roofs and other parts get beautiful accents with pigeons flying and wandering around. Their fearlessness is so visually soothing. They, undoubtedly, make for stunning sights in Al Balad. You weren’t here if you don’t have a photo of the buildings that doesn’t have pigeons in it. The trip here would be incomplete if you haven’t captured a thing or two of them. I now understand why social media platforms and photo exhibitions as well as competitions have photos of these pigeons at this place more often than not.
That’s the reason why I spent a few minutes at several points of the perambulation marveling at these feathered creatures as a way of paying my respects. This tour wouldn’t be quite interesting and lively without them on the scene.
It’s been more than a month since I was here but my good memories and stories to friends and people who ask me about this historical site always make mention of the magic they emanate, not only to the streets but Al Balad as a whole. These peaceful animals elevate every traditional building photo therein. They create a special force of beauty that makes Al Balad more than the visitors’ expectations.
These dejected buildings were owned by humans years ago but what remains at present and the future are owned by their ever loyal, non-migratory residents.
May this story be a precedent of the many encounters of the real owners of Al Balad because they’re more than just pets. They’re more than decorations in a photo. They’re more than just familiar sights. Collectively, they’re also a quintessential element of Al Balad.
These revived ruins, along with many other restored parts of ancient Saudi, UNESCO heritage sites or not, are reminders of how important the past is. It’s always a revelation for anyone to see what the past looks like in flesh as compared to the future because of the clear differences one can instantaneously infer between them.
It’s always better to see a direct bridge to the past than one via history books or films, too.
Kudos to the people behind the preservation of this UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s one of the few tourist attractions in the Kingdom that get booked solid all year round. Thanks for its irresistible dreamy stores and cultural wonders oozing with nostalgic ornaments and a craving for the past.
Experiencing this tourism gem of the Kingdom certainly made my two-day visit in Jeddah interesting, colorful, and meaningful even though I got apprehended by a police for wearing shorts, right at my penultimate stride to the exit gate.
So make sure to wear pants if you go to Al Balad; unless, you wouldn’t mind paying SAR 100.
Arabic calligraphy and graffiti on public places in three cities (saudigazzette.com)
The 12 hidden gems of Jeddah (blog.ihg.com)
Where to Stay in Jeddah (blueabaya.com)
Explore Al Balad: 9 things to do in Jeddah’s oldest neighborhood (thenationalnews.com)
AL BALAD THINGS TO DO, HOW TO VISIT, PHOTO LOCATIONS, IN 2020! JEDDAH (thewanderingquinn.com)