Jeddah’s traditional heritage

A traditional Heritage listed by UNESCO


Jeddah's traditional architecture

Jeddah is home of a very old traditional of architecture proper to the Hejaz that local artesans brought to a level of a refined building art and technology.

This knowhow was already celebrated by early European explorers. In 1503 CE the Italian explorer Ludovico di Varthema who traveled to India did a stopover in Jeddah and already described its houses as "very beautiful". Three centuries later the British explorer George Annesly did a similar trip and described Jeddah's houses as "impressive".

As an important trading port Jeddah benefited for centuries from interactions with Middle-Eastern, Asian, and European cultures that enriched the arts and architecture of Hejaz.

In addition, as the seaport of Makkah Jeddah has welcome millions of pilgrims originating from all around the world that brought new skills and exchanged ideas with the local people.

Jeddah, mid-1800s (photo: James Wellsted)

Jeddah, mid-1800s (photo: James Wellsted)

Jeddah 1938 (photo: William Facey)

Jeddah 1938 (photo: William Facey)

Also the building activities in Egypt across the Red Sea influenced the construction skills of the people of Hejaz. For example, the famous Rowshans and Mashrabiyas (projected screened windows) which are prominent features of Hejaz architecture came from Egypt through Jeddah.

Construction techniques

Construction materials used in the houses of Jeddah proves the ability to exploit the surrounding environment and overseas trade. The ancient people of Jeddah used to build their homes which four main raw material:

  • Coral stones extracted from the nearby reef along the Red Sea shore
  • Purified clay taken from the deep bottom of two lakes Al-Mangabi and Al-Arbaeen used to cement material to glue coral stones. The clay is also used as water proofing for the floors and roofs and lower parts of the external coral walls, which is a technique unique to Jeddah
  • Teak wood imported from neighboring areas such as Wadi Fatima or from abroad (especially from India) through the seaport
  • Gypsum that can be found in the Arabian Peninsula and that is used to decorate the frontdoors

The building technic consisted in arranging the building stones over each other, separated by pieces of wood (Takaleel), which helped to ensure a fair distribution of the loads on the walls.

The height of some of these buildings reaches more than 30 meters, some of which remain strong and in good condition after decades despite the weather process.

As coral stone is light and fragile it is protected from the high level humidity and salinity in the air with thick layer of lime plaster (nora), and wooden pieces (ganadel) that absorbs cracks resulting dilatation after dying that kept the building standing for 400 years.

Street of Al-Balad (photo: Andy Conder)

Street of Al-Balad (photo: Andy Conder)

Element of architecture

A Rowshan is a 60 to 90 centimeter projected wooden skeleton covered with decorative wooden panels and screens. It usually covers the entire elevation of the upper floors. This element of architecture helped the air move and spread it around the house as well as cast shade on the walls of the house to alleviate the heat.

In addition to the construction technique designed to cool down the temperature, the houses were built next to each other and had curved fronts to cast shade on each other.

A Mashrabia is smaller, mostly in Majlis (the public room of the house), salons and pots of water are placed on its base to cool the air passing by it.

Decorated windows at Al-Balad (photo: Andy Conder)

Decorated windows at Al-Balad (photo: Andy Conder)

Windows are usually large in order to protect the house from outside looks while letting the light entering through decorated wooden screens.

Baab (door) of Al-Bait Na'shan (photo: Andy Conder)

Baab (door) of Al-Bait Na'shan (photo: Andy Conder)

The Baab, the door is usually quite massive and made of teak wood with metallic nails and knockers. The wood is ornamented with engraving. Toped with a pointed or half circular arch surrounded by a decorative gypsum frame. Skills sophistication and creativity of carpenters. Painted in colors contrasting them from surrounding white walls. Symbol of economic and social status.

The Sath, the roof, is also ornamented with geometric or floral motifs and also scripts (mostly Quranic).

Jeddah's markets

​As crossroads between ancient trade routes the people of Jeddah have a long merchant tradition that is kept alive in its recent and old markets. One of the most famous is the fish market located west of the Corniche which offers at least 50 species of sea creature freshly fished from the Red Sea, ranging from hammerhead sharks to grouper, parrotfish and squid.

At the heart of the old city, coral houses line both sides of market street, the traditional Souq Alawi. It is the most extensive in the Kingdom and is famous among traders and pilgrims for centuries. There can be found genuine Arabian jewelry, Islamic art, and traditional dress.

For more information about Jeddah's traditional heritage

Hisham Mortada, Architectural & Urban Distinctions of Historic Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Berlin, Germany, 27 Sept 2014)

A traditional heritage listed by UNESCO

About the Author

My name is Florent Egal, I am a French national living in Riyadh since January 2010. After six years of exploration of Saudi Arabia I have decided to show with this website that KSA has much more to offer than the stereotype landscape of empty extends of sand dunes. I hope that after reading through these pages people will feel the same willingness and amazement than I have to discover this fascinating country

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