In photos: The best Khaleeji city for architecture lovers to visit

Sekka Editorial | Saudi Arabia | 06.06.2018

Located in Haret Al Yemen, Historic Jeddah, the house of Abdel Aziz Hamza Ghurab has one of the area’s most colorful entrances.

An architecture enthusiast looking for somewhere to feast your design-loving eyes and spend the upcoming holidays? Look no further than Historic Jeddah, located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second largest city.

Overlooking the Red Sea and less than 90 kilometers away from Mecca, in the 7th C, Caliph Uthman bin Affan- Islam’s third caliph- designated the city as the gateway for pilgrims, as well as goods, coming to the landlocked holy city through sea.  


What has emerged since then is a bustling, multicultural urban environment, with one of the most heterogeneous yet simultaneously homogenous populations in the world, that has primarily engaged in mercantilism over the centuries. What also arose is a distinct style of architecture that is unique to Jeddah, and that is a reflection of its people’s diversity and its geography as a desert port city.


But modernisation and development beginning in the last century has meant that the remaining old buildings and houses that embody this special architectural style are now mainly concentrated in downtown Jeddah, which is also known as Historic Jeddah and Al Balad.


Jeddah native and photographer, Omar Al Nahdi, takes us on a virtual tour of Historic Jeddah, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.


Historic Jeddah as a walled city

Historic Jeddah is divided into six haras or quarters, three of which are named after the geographical locations they face: Haret Al-Sham (The Al Sham Quarter), Haret Al Yemen (The Yemen Quarter), and Haret Al Bahr (The Sea Quarter). 


These quarters were historically protected by a wall, constructed upon the order of Hussain Al Kurdi, a Mamluk prince, who sought to fortify the city from sea invasions. Though the wall no longer stands as it did before, its gates, including Makkah Gate pictured above, continue to survive.


A world of colorful tower houses



Historic Jeddah is characterised by tall houses, some of which are 30 meters high, an anomaly in the old architecture of the Arabian Gulf Region, in which concern for the width rather than the height of domestic structures was the predominant pattern.


These tower houses were constructed in the second half of the 19th C, after the opening of the Suez Canal and the development of steamboats, which meant more trade opportunities and an increase in the number of pilgrims arriving through Jeddah. To cater to these changes, families built their houses upwards, so that they could manage their booming businesses from the ground floor of their home, receive pilgrims in rooms above, whilst still maintaining a separate, more private chamber for themselves on a different level.




The tower houses were built using a combination of stone and clay, as well as local wood and wood imported from the Indian subcontinent. The wood was primarily used to construct the rawashin or window frames and covers, which were designed and crafted in a way that would permit light and air flow, whilst minimizing the intrusion of undesired features of the desert weather, such as dust and sand.


One of the most eye-catching and notable features is the rawashins’ vibrant colours, which vary throughout the quarters. This variation is not without its significance, however. Every color painted has meaning.


For example, if the entrance door of a house and its rawashin are green, such as the  house- Bayt Wali Noor- photographed above, that means that the house faces the direction of Al-Sham.



If they are brown, that indicates that the house faces the direction of Yemen.



A blue colour signifies that the house faces the direction of the sea.


House features as a class indicator


In addition to providing an indication of which direction a house faces, rawashin and entrance doors were also a historic indicator of the owning family’s socioeconomic class. The larger the rawashin, and the more ubiquitously they appeared on the house, the higher the socioeconomic status of the house’s owners.


Double doors, ubiquitous in Haret Al Sham, indicated that the owners belonged to the wealthy mercantile class. Single doors, predominantly present in Haret Al Yemen, demonstrated a lower socioeconomic status instead.



Another class indicator was the presence of an al tayrama, a salon-like space on a house’s roof that was used for people to gather and enjoy the cool nights. Its construction and presence indicated the owner’s affluence, as the tower houses of Jeddah were normally devoid of courtyards.



Notable structures


One of the most noteworthy historical structures of Historic Jeddah is the Al Shafi’i Mosque, reportedly Jeddah’s oldest mosque. Most sources indicate that its minaret was built during the12th or 13th C, while the prayer area may date back as early as the reign of Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab, Islam's second caliph.






Another is Bayt Naseef, the first house that the late King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud dwelled in when he first came to Hejaz. The house is estimated to be approximately 150 years old.



Bayt Ibrahim Batarji once housed the first American Embassy in Jeddah. 



Ribat Al Khunji Al Kabeer  is another well-known structure. Historically, it housed women who did not have anyone to support them or needed a place to stay.



Today, many of the houses in Historic Jeddah have also become awqaf, or endowments for the needy, who continue to inhabit and populate this gem in the heart of  the cosmopolitan city of Jeddah.


Omar Al Nahdi is a Saudi photographer who specializes in photographically documenting Historic Jeddah and the daily life of its people. To view more of his photography or contact him, visit his page on Instagram, @nahdiomar, or his website, .



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