JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture plans to transform Jeddah’s old city into an open-air museum of sorts by creating a pedestrian route across the area.
The ministry announced that the new development project currently being implemented would tackle several issues, including the removal of a tunnel, in an attempt to revive tourism in the area.
Traffic rerouting would make the historic buildings, mosques and markets stand out by creating an uninterrupted historic space that can be enjoyed by pedestrians, according to Abdulaziz Al-Issa, an area supervisor.
He said the area around the site, known famously as Al-Balad, would "undergo world-class renovation in order to preserve the area’s distinct architecture," adding that the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014.
Jeddah’s historic area, which dates as far back to the 7th century, was the city center until the 1970s and 1980s, when the country’s oil boom encouraged local families that had lived there for centuries to move north of the city in search of more prosperous and modernized living standards. Preservation efforts, now partially financed by several of these families, have been ongoing since that time.
The area, also known as the “gateway to Makkah” thanks to its proximity to the seaside, has had its fair share of challenges and obstacles. A fire that broke out last year damaged several buildings, three of which completely collapsed.
Preservation efforts were sometimes hampered by the narrowness of the alleyways between the houses, which was another reason why families rushed to move out in favor of larger, more modern dwellings. Most of the ancient walls that surround the town and market have long since disappeared thanks to adverse weather conditions. The old buildings, which boast distinct hand-carved doors and windows, are also in need of constant renovation thanks to the humidity eroding the walls. Paradoxically, authorities stipulate that the walls be renovated only with Red Sea mud and coral limestone to retain the distinct character of the buildings.
The area was nominated by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage to earn UNESCO status back in 2009. Jeddah’s municipality founded the Historical Preservation Society in 1991 and has since consecrated millions of dollars towards renovation efforts. Though many of the houses are still owned by Jeddah’s most prominent families, the government bought and restored several properties, including the famous Shafi mosque and the house in which Saudi Arabia’s founding father, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, resided when visiting the port city.