Friday, January 27, 2012

Jeddah: the highlights

One of the best decisions we made on this vacation was to hire a tour company to show us around Jeddah. There is no way we would have been able to find all these cool places without Dawi, our tour guide, showing us everything. The traffic combined with the complete lack of signage would have just resulted in more fights than sites if we had gone it alone.

Dawi was a great guide and he catered our experience to our interests. We told him we are history buffs, and he didn't let us down with showing us some very interesting things we would have just driven right by. Here are the top 5 coolest things we saw in Jeddah.

#1: The only Christian church in Jeddah.

Mind you, this church is in ruins and obviously predates the modern government, but what's left of it is still there, just hanging out south of the port. 

The church was made of coral bricks and, as you can see, is in a major state of disrepair. But the basic architecture is recognizable as a church; it faces Jerusalem and everything. Our tour guide told us that it probably won't be there for much longer because the land its on is for sale. The new owner will likely tear it down. 

The church isn't fenced off or anything. It's just on the side of a busy road, surrounded by litter. We could tell that it has become a kind of hideout for the local kids. There was some graffiti and lots of broken bottles all around the site. As we found was the case with just about every historical structure in Jeddah, we were able to poke around inside, touch things, and climb all over this building that was several centuries old.  

It felt very sacrilegious, and not just because it was formerly a religious building. The Mister and I are big believers in preserving history, and letting the masses traipse around buildings like this is not a recipe for maintaining historical integrity.

Still, it was pretty cool to navigate the caved-in floors and find things like the ruins of the old nave. 

#2: The coral houses of Al Balad.


Al Balad is the old section of the city. It's like stepping back in time, and into another country. This part of Jeddah is the clearest evidence of the city's placement as a crossroads of trade routes and pilgrim roads. The Mister and I felt like we'd stepped onto a street in Egypt or Morocco, the architecture was so different from anything we'd seen in Saudi Arabia. 

The fact that these houses are made of coral, a very weak building material, means that 90% of Al Balad is in shambles. Houses lean sharply to one side, walls are crumbling, and there are frequent fires from the faulty wiring that was retrofitted into the buildings over the years.

When I say the houses are made of coral, I literally mean coral. As is the reefs that grow in the ocean.

Dawi, our tour guide, told us that Al Balad is broken up into sections, and each block has a sort of mayor (he kept calling it a chief) that coordinates neighborhood activities, and hears the grievances of the primarily immigrant community.

Dawi, our guide, and the Mister wind their way through an Al Balad street.

 The dark brown boxy things you see on the facades of the houses are window coverings. They are deliberately built that way so that the women can enjoy the sunshine and the view of the activities on the street by looking through the window slats, but no one on the street can enjoy the view of the woman inside her house. The windows are all made of wood. You can imagine how that wood holds up in the humid desert climate of Jeddah, especially when not properly cared for.

On the right is what is left of the first school in Al Balad.

Check out the wiring! No wonder there are so many fires! In fact, while we were in the Naseef house (#3 on this list), a block of coral houses caught fire a few streets away.

#3: The Naseef House


The Naseef house is one of the few houses in Al Balad that has been through restoration and preservation. The Naseef family is a wealthy family in Jeddah, and this house hosted the newly crowned King Abdul Aziz after he first united the tribes of Saudi Arabia. This house's historical significance is similar to the houses in the States where George Washington visited before and during his time as President. 


In the courtyard out front is a large, mature tree. According to the guidebooks, this was the first--and for a long time the only-- tree in Jeddah.

Thankfully, because we had Dawi, we were able to go into the Naseef house, despite it being closed to tourists for the day (or possibly for the foreseeable future? Who knows). There were a few rooms that were outfitted with modern amenities like electricity and televisions. They were used to welcome touring school groups, I assumed. But once we got upstairs, it was like we were walking through an abandoned house. 

Old furniture and rugs lined the walls and floors. Light fixtures and intricately carved doors were in each room. It was such a fascinating place. I couldn't believe that this huge, 5-story home was once used to house just one family.

One family with 17 children and a few wives...but still. They all lived in the same house!

The central stairway that ran throughout the house led up to the kitchen, which was on the top floor. Dawi told us the kitchens were on the top floors of these old houses so the heat would not stay in the house during the sweltering summers, and it also ventilated the smell of the fragrant Arabic dishes.

Notice how all the stairs are very shallow and wide? That made them easier for the camels to walk up and down on without tripping as they would bring the kitchen supplies and furniture to the top floors . Can you imagine what that must have looked like!? Camels!

Speaking of camels...

#4: Drinking camel milk on the side of the highway.


This is a rite of passage that all expats simply must do before leaving Saudi Arabia. On our way to the outskirts of town, we stopped at a Bedouin farm and got a couple of fresh bowls of camel milk. I have to admit drinking camel milk is one of those things I'm glad to say I've done...but I will not be doing it again any time soon.

In order to milk a camel, you have to have the baby around. Camel's bodies have developed a way to prevent the milk from coming out until it is the baby camel that is receiving the goods. The farmers cover up the teets until they are ready to milk the mother, then they bring the baby over to get the juices flowing, if you will.

Once the baby has gotten a few sips, the farmers move in and the mother camel doesn't realize there's been a switcharoo.

I felt bad for stealing the kid's lunch.

As the big bowl (the farmers' way of measuring and charging for the units of milk) filled up to the brim, a frothy foam formed across the top. "Camel cappuccino," Dawi laughed.

Two smaller bowls were filled for the Mister and me and we hesitantly dived in.

It was warm, which I think was what made it kind of gross. But it was a little salty as well. It didn't taste like regular cow milk. Dawi explained that camel milk has hardly any fat because the mother needs the fat stored in her hump to survive. Camel milk is still rich in other nutrients, but the lack of lipids made the drink taste kind of like a tepid saline solution. So interesting, but definitely something that I wouldn't make a regular part of my diet.

#5: The ruins of an old Ottoman fort.


After we forced down our bowl of camel milk, we continued on the road out of Jeddah. Dawi told us we were going to see an old Turkish fort, and I had the mental picture of an official historical site with an entry gate, explanatory plaques, and docents of some sort.

Such was not the case, but the ruins of the old fort were intriguing just the same.

Like the church by the sea, the remains of this fort are just hanging on on the side of the highway.


We had to pull off to the side of the road, wiggling our way between the guard rails. There was a pitiful little chain link fence around the ruins, but that hasn't stopped anyone from poking around what is left of the ancient walls.

As cars zoomed past, the Mister climbed up and took a look around. I decided to stay on the ground. It was just so mind blowing that this fort has been in that spot for hundreds of years, and Saudis drive by it every day on their commute to and from Jeddah. There have been no efforts to restore or preserve the fort. There is so much history in this country, and most of it is just sitting by the side of the road! I couldn't believe it, but I am so glad we got the opportunity to poke around in some of the skeletons of Jeddah's history before they were worn away or torn down forever. 

Vicariously yours,


  1. Please be aware that most, if not all, camels in the Middle East have not been vaccinated and some diseases, such as brucellosis and tuberculosis are rampant and can be transmitted through drinking the milk and/or eating the meat. Even be aware when drinking cows milk that it can be disease ridden too. There's not much prevention or inspection going on in their dairies. Slaughter houses in general are dirty and vermin infested (rats with cats after the rats)! I don't eat local meat or eat local dairy products. Enjoy your blog.

  2. Wow! Amazing pics. Love that we got to see real local food! And old bldgs!

    Thank you!

  3. You are showing some old building with no sign of any Church claim to be a church. From last 1400 years whole of Saudi Arabia is 100% Muslim Country. This building cannot be older than 1400 years. No such structure were erected than.

  4. In continuation with above comments:
    "Sami Nawar, director of Culture and Tourism in Jeddah Municipality who is also in charge of the Jeddah historical area, showed the audience of about 100 people with the aid of a 1930 map drawn by a British citizen that the structure was not the remains of a church.
    Nawar said: “We have proof from a survey conducted in 1930 by a British Christian, who documented all the structures in old Jeddah. If this structure was a church, it would have definitely been mentioned, along with the non-Muslim cemetery.”
    He also said the building was described in the British surveyor’s documents as the Prince of the Sea’s house (Bait Amir Al-Bahr), and the municipality has the map, which was made available to the public.
    Nawar also said: “If there was a church, the British surveyor would have documented it, but I think somebody exaggerated the matter because the building was abandoned for a century. "