Jeddah - a tale of two cities

By Roger Harrison, Special to Arab News
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2001-07-05 05:37

JEDDAH is the living embodiment of a tale of two cities. The Bride of the Red Sea was for centuries a sleepy port by a shimmering sea, relying on the passing trade of spice caravans and pilgrims to Makkah. Over the last half century, the city has taken on a second life, transforming itself into a modern, bustling entrepot and tourist center hosting over two million visitors a year who come to enjoy its glittering attractions. Half concealed in the shadows of the towering glass and steel structures that dominate the skyline of modern Jeddah lies the carcass of the old city. Crooked streets insinuate themselves between ancient buildings, occasionally passing the exposed coral-block walls and wooden beams of houses built centuries ago. Wise-looking cats drip from barred windows and sidle along the base of protecting walls in search of food. The occasional goat bleats from a shadowy corridor leading into a maze of winding stairways and half open doors. Straggling electric cables winding like vines over the fascias of buildings hint at the efforts toward the modernization of the old quarter. They evoke a feeling of irony at the rush to grasp at the modern while losing sight of the precious history of the city.

Few tourists visit this part of the city that quietly molders in the penumbra of the 20th century structures, an unwanted bride forgotten and overshadowed by the brash glitter of youth.

A sprawling conurbation of about 2.5 million inhabitants some 58 kilometers from north to south on the coast of the Red Sea and close to Makkah and Madinah, Jeddah is the traditional gateway to the two holy cities of the Muslim world. This proximity provided a substantial part of its economy in the past and today more than two million visitors from around the world pass through it on pilgrimage, adding to the economic and cultural life of the city.

Many pass through the King Abdul Aziz International Airport that has the capacity to handle over 15 million passengers a year. Covering 105 square kilometers to the north of the city, the airport features a special Haj terminal dedicated to cope with the influx of pilgrims. The 40 airline companies who are permanently represented at the airport together with the national carrier, Saudia, evidence the international flavor of the traffic.

Jeddah Islamic Port was, in the days before air travel, a major entry point to the Kingdom and the holy cities. Today, it is almost exclusively a commercial port, receiving 55 percent of the Kingdom’s imports and five percent of the gross exports — all non-oil. A commercial city, over 90,000 businesses are registered in Jeddah, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total for Saudi Arabia. Forty of the top 100 businesses in the Kingdom are based in the city.

There is, however, another side to the city. Far from being obsessively commercial, Jeddah attracts millions of tourists from across the Kingdom every year who spend their summer vacation by the sea. The Jeddah Festival, held during the summer months, attracts over two million visitors to enjoy the attractions the city has to offer.

A major cultural attraction is the burial site of Mother Eve, situated in the Gashla Arsenal area of the city. Although the grave itself is not accessible, many tourists visit the area and view the grave behind its protecting walls from a respectful distance.

The Corniche, probably Jeddah’s biggest tourist attraction, is home to a cornucopia of pleasures. The open air sculpture museum is unique among cities. Containing creations from artists as diverse in styles as Henry Moore and Joan Miro, with their massively solid and tactile bronzes to the colorful whimsies of Victor Vasarely whose flat enameled steel sculptures seem to slide from two to three dimensions as they are viewed. One of the joys of the museum is that the public are positively encouraged to approach and touch great works of art, an enlightened attitude probably unique anywhere in the world.

The monumental theme is not confined to the museum. All around the city, at intersections and on roundabouts, entirely unexpected sights greet the visitor. They range from the directly representational, like Julio Lafuente’s four internally lit Mameluk Mosque lanterns towering over a major junction on the North Corniche to the Sylvestre Giovanni’s steel Aloe Flowers, “planted” next to a busy set of traffic signals.

Opposite the open-air museum, one of the most famous sights of the city explodes into view every night just before sunset. A huge fountain, officially the highest in the world, bursts out of an incense-burner shaped jet, hissing skyward against a ruddy declining sun. Showering down in a translucent smoky haze, the whole effect symbolizes the importance of both water and incense to Saudi culture.

The cultural theme continues with the wealth of museums that pepper the city. Khuzam’s Palace is a popular destination together with the baroque confection of Abdul Raouf Khaleel’s museum, a riot of color and form, the fascinating result of an eclectic collecting habit over many years. The Science Museum, set on the Corniche right by the sea, boasts interactive displays and a hugely entertaining learning experience for children and adults alike.

Cultural needs satisfied, many visitors head for the north Corniche, where restaurants and amusement parks abound. At night, the area is alive with brilliantly lit Ferris Wheels turning majestically against the tropical sky and restaurants, from the modest to the exotic, filled with a tempting array of exotic dishes to keep any gastronome occupied for the duration of his stay. Along the sea front next to the Red Sea, families spread their carpets and share food. The whole Corniche takes on the air of one huge open-air party, to which all are welcome! During the summer Jeddah Festival, fireworks crackle and boom overhead, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Jeddah, the historical city living in the very real present, combines the opposite and potentially opposing areas of business and pleasure — the serious and the festive — into a unique blend, where profit and pleasure is the result.

— With additional input from Saad B. Al-Matrafi

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