Jeddah has a history that predates Saudi Arabia. As both an important trading seaport and the gateway to Mecca, the city has been thriving since at least the 7th century and was an important hub in the earliest Islamic caliphates, and even the Ottoman empire. It might be a busy business centre today, but its many great museums have managed to preserve its earliest history – here are some of the best, which honour the city’s heritage, history, art, music, and science.
Nasseef House isn’t just a museum, but a historical landmark in its own right. It was built in the early 1880s for the governor of Jeddah at that time. Years later, in 1925, when King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud (the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia) first entered the city after its siege, he stayed there.
In the early 90s, it remained an important place for the wealthiest people of Jeddah to socialize, but over time lost its charm. In 1975, it was turned into a library that housed 16,000 books and was open to all. The books have since been moved to King Abdulaziz University, and the house turned into a museum.
The Abdul Raouf Khalil museum is among the oldest and most visited museums in the city. The museum consists of many buildings, including a mosque, the remains of a citadel, and areas dedicated to Saudi and Islamic heritage, as well as areas dedicated to the history of the cultures that preceded both. The museum highlights the main eras of Jeddah’s history, from the early fishermen tribes that inhabited the region to the early Islamic Caliphates up to the Ottoman rule, through to when King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder and first monarch of Saudi Arabia, conquered the city in the 1920s.
Safia Binzagir is one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known artists and a supporter of the local art scene. She held her first art exhibition in the 1960s, becoming the first Saudi woman to have a solo art show (which she herself was not allowed to attend until many years later).She is now the only artist in the country to have her own museum and it is a must-visit for anyone trying to get a look at what Jeddah looked like 30-40 years ago. Safia Benzagir has been known to be a strong advocate of using art to reflect and preserve Saudi Arabia’s rich traditions. A common theme in her work revolves around depicting the day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia, focusing on the country’s marriage customs, costumes, cuisines, and architecture. She is known for sitting down with elderly women before working on many of her paintings to get a better understanding of the culture in which they grew up.
The building that houses Bait Al Balad museum was built in the early 20th century and was used as the British legion’s headquarters until the mid-1930s. It was restored and turned into a museum by Jeddah Municipality some years ago and now houses a variety of antiquities including furniture handicrafts and tools from both the Islamic and pre-Islamic eras. The museum is located in Jeddah’s Al Balad neighbourhood. Al Balad is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods; it dates back to the 7th century and with its historic buildings and antique charm, it hasn’t changed much since. Most of the pavements, roads, and buildings (including the one that houses this museum) in Al Balad were built centuries ago and the neighbourhood’s distinctive architecture, that mainly relied on stones mined from a lake nearby and wooden planks to alleviate the heat of the region’s climate, is in stark contrast to the rest of the city’s hustle and bustle.
This open-air museum is located near Jeddah’s corniche and houses 20 of the city’s most prominent sculptures. The sculptures had suffered extensive damage over the decades and were recently restored to their original shapes and colours. Each sculpture represents something specific about Jeddah’s heritage and culture. For instance, Maha Malluh’s sculpture Abraj is produced from recreations of the aluminium pots that came from various flea markets around Saudi Arabia. It represents how the various tribes that would settle or visit Jeddah would bond over food. Today, Jeddah is a diverse melting pot of expats and locals from around the country and has restaurants from all over the world.
This collection ranges from both pre-Islamic artefacts including oil paintings, rock carvings, and pottery, as well as some of the rarest Islamic manuscripts, furniture and attire. The museum has nearly 300 rooms that house a variety of exhibitions with extremely informative panels.
The Jameel Houses of Traditional Arts is a set-up that is also located in Al Balad, in one of the traditional coral-stone houses that line its streets. The museum’s focus is on reflecting the ways Jeddah’s oldest neighborhood has preserved its age-old unique way of life – such as the way its streets are decorated and lit up throughout Ramadan (and have been for centuries), its souqs (open-air markets), and distinct architecture. Not only is it a museum that focuses on Islamic geometry, patterns, art, and design, it has also now launched a postgraduate education programme in partnership with the UK-based Prince’s Foundation School.
Jeddah’s Science and Technology Museum perfectly brings together science, history, and Islamic heritage all in one place. The museum celebrates the contributions of Muslim scholars to science and technology during the first Golden Age of Islam from 650 to 1650. The exhibits in the museum also demonstrate the different ways scientific knowledge have played a role in early Islamic communities. There are also areas dedicated to modern technology developed in the Arab world.