Al Balad (‘the town’ in Arabic) neighbourhood is often referred to as the Gate to Mecca, downtown Jeddah or old Jeddah, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While some evidence shows that its existence dates back to pre-Islamic days, when tribes of fishermen first started sporadically settling in the region, its major turning point as a thriving hub began in the early Islamic caliphates. Al Balad was then established as a sea port to receive pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca, and to facilitate regional commerce.
Most of the buildings have remained unchanged for at least the past 400 years and stand in stark contrast to the rest of Jeddah today. The narrow roads, wooden buildings and old-school souqs (open-air markets) still exist as they did centuries ago.
Tourists and residents enjoy walking down its alleys and admiring Jeddah’s old architecture, right in the heart of one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the region. Several of Jeddah’s main museums are now located in some of the oldest buildings in Al Balad, making it possible to turn any trip into a holistic learning experience.
During the early 1500s, when Jeddah was part of the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate, a huge wall was built around the city to fortify it from potential attacks from the Red Sea. The wall, which is believed to have been built with the active participation of the residents of Jeddah at the time, was fortified with forts, towers and cannons to repel any attacking vessels. There were a handful of gates at which people could enter or leave the city, and while the walls have long since come down and Jeddah has expanded so much, the famous gates have been replicated in various places around town as a nod to the city’s history.
One of the main gates at that time, the one that faced Mecca (known as ‘Bab Mecca’ – bab being Arabic for ‘gate’), was located in Al Balad. Though the wall itself is longer in place, the gate still stands and is a tourist favourite. The gate is also called Bab Mecca and is located next to the oldest souq, or open-air market, of Balad, which spans across an entire street.
Al Balad is home to a number of monuments, heritage buildings, souqs, open squares and mosques. Masjid al Shaf’i, or the Shaf’i Mosque, for instance, dates back to the time of third Caliph of Islam, and is the oldest mosque in Jeddah. Its distinct colours and patterns reflect the era in which it was built, making it stand out from most mosques in the city and turning it into a major tourist attraction.
Established more than 150 years ago, Souk Al-Nada in Al Balad is another tourist favourite and one of the most popular traditional markets in Jeddah. The souq is especially busy during Ramadan, when most residents turn to traditional cuisine in the spirit of the season. (Also, things are a lot cheaper in the souqs of Balad than in grocery stores and shopping malls elsewhere in the city.)
Balad’s cemetery is also a significant part of the neighbourhood. Not only is it the oldest graveyard in the country; local folklore also states that Eve (Hawwa in Arabic) is buried here. In fact, it is believed that the name ‘Jeddah’ originates because of this belief; Jeddah is Arabic for ‘grandmother’ and local legends believe that the biblical (and quranic) grandmother of mankind is buried in this town.