When I read from my newsfeed about the Jeddah Heritage Festival last week, I made sure that one weekend evening is blocked for the trip to Old Jeddah (Balad) so I can witness for myself the first festival of its kind in this part of the kingdom, the Jeddah Heritage Festival.
The visit to Historical Jeddah (Balad) was something I looked forward to for many years now. Everytime my wife and girls were here in the past, we always planned that “historical and cultural walk” to Old Balad, considered an open air museum for the generations as it contains the heritage to the history of Jeddah. But we never did, making it this year’s target place for us to visit together.
Jeddah’s old city is an exceptional piece of history. It tells the story of a beautiful past, something which not just the locals need to hear and see but for all other expatriates as well.
Sponsored by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), the 10-day Jeddah Heritage Festival which opened last 16th January 2014 spotlights Jeddah’s rich heritage. The colorful extravaganza that features Hijazi dances, theater performances, folk songs, and performances by local artists, was like going back in time and seeing how people lived many years ago.
The Jeddah Heritage Festival features cultural and entertaining programs based on Hijazi heritage, designed to recall the glorious history of the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’. It aims to let the new generations know the history of their ancestors and how they lived their daily lives within the walled city. It is also to highlight the role of Old Jeddah as a gateway to the Two Holy Mosques which have passed all cradles of cultures and civilizations in Saudi Arabia.
Since its opening day, the festival is always full of fun and excitement. The avenues and areas are jam-packed with enthusiastic crowds who are enthralled by a wide variety of musical entertainment, laser shows, handicraft displays, photo exhibitions and Hijazi performances by local artists from Jeddah.
It also features other cultural events across the various sites such as, poetry, art shows, folk dances, and plays about the tradition of marriage, to showcase the old life of the Hijaz people. The tribe chiefs, and Hara (neighborhood) people perform together with professional actors along the two sides of the festival’s main avenue. A stage has also been set up for comedy plays and standup comedy by well-known comedians from the Jeddah Comedy Club.
Traditional Mezmar Dance at the Jeddah Heritage Festival in Balad
The festival provides two avenues for the events. The first one stretches from Bab Al Madina in the north of Al Bay’a Dawar up to Yemeni Hara Omda (tribe chief), while the second one extends from Bab Al Bant up to Bab Makkah.
The festival avenues and each of its events provide tourist guides to introduce to the visitors the events and historic houses in the Historic Area.
There are also freebies of heritage items, handicrafts, souvenirs and traditional cuisine but we never got one :-p
The Jeddah historical area has enjoyed great attention from everyone because in 1925, the founder King Abdulaziz used Bait Naseef as his dwelling place for 10 years.
Houses in Old Jeddah have old designs and architecture that are true and authentic form of art. I heard that the old Hijazis built their houses by using carefully selected rocks taken from the nearby Arba’een Lake. The rocks used were reshaped using manual tools and set down according to sizes alongside stretches of wood retrieved from nearby areas, such as the Fatima Valley. They also used mud that were taken from Bahr Al Teen. The construction method was comprised of positioning the rocks into Midameks, which are lines of rocks separated by pieces of wood (Takaleel) one meter apart. This method helped distribute the weight evenly over the walls. Old buildings are largely similar to the modern concrete buildings, that is, the wood is used to hold the rock and concrete and lessen the weight of the building.
Some of the houses rise to more than 30 meters in height and even with the passing decades, some are still in good condition given their sturdy method of construction.
The houses have lattices (wind-catchers) in every room. Large Rawashin (bay windows) were also used, and ornate wood was used for the walls over a large area, which facilitated the flow and distribution of air throughout the house as well as cast shadows across the walls to mitigate the heat. Houses were constructed side by side with facades to cast cooling shade on one another.
Reference on Old Jeddah Houses:
The festival had special locations for artisans where one will see different types of local food cooking such as Foul (beans), liver, Motabak, Kabab, Al Mero, and a number of Hijazi foods made by famous skilled cooks. There are stalls representing how people used to cook, eat, sing, dance and how they made goods for everyday life and for special occasions
Heritage and handmade artifacts’ shops are also spread on both sides of the avenues of the festival which are crowded by traditional water vendors, carts, street vendors and Mosahrati.
On display at the Festival was the first ambulance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (a Ford model) donated by King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al Faisal Al Saud.
Believe it or not, there was also a display of several vintage cars that wowed the guests. If you look at the body and make of these cars, they definitely look very much sturdier than the cars we have today.
A corner was made to relive the glorious past of Old Balad as a center of trade.
Well, with the company of Evan and Khokon, my “professional poser” friends, the visit to the festival wouldn’t be complete if no ‘selfies’ were taken for posterity’s sake.
The curtains were already down when we got to the Square where the “Stand-up Comedy”, a daily show performed by actors from Jeddah Comedy Club, is being held. But that did not dampen our spirits. As ever-ready comedians from the Al Laith Comedy Club, we did our ‘selfies’ in the guise of comedy acts. :-)
While standing at the Old Jeddah Gate, I realized that the Hijazi people are deeply attached to their tradition and are proud of it. I hope this festival becomes a tradition that will be celebrated annually to preserve the rich culture and heritage of the Hijazi people.
It was almost 11:00pm when we left Old Balad for a late dinner at Al Baik. What was supposed to be a quick dinner turned out to be our midnight snack as the queue of endless people wouldn’t let the restaurant crews rest even for a minute.
It was past midnight when we reached the Al Balad Parking and we were surprised to see the Blizzard-Pearl Princess parked alone. Luckily, the collector at the toll gate was still around to let us out. Otherwise, the city that never sleeps won’t allow us to sleep in our beds in our desert home in Al Laith.
Seeing Old Jeddah with its houses, avenues, its small shops, and people inspired me very much. I’m sure it’s going to benefit the generation of today, as it brings back the glorious memories of Jeddah’s past. It is a valuable occasion for the younger generation to learn, know and see the history of Old Jeddah and I believe it as a key component of the Saudi national identity.
The festival is a great success. The organizers have done their jobs very well.
For those who wish to visit the Jeddah Heritage Festival (you still have two days, 25th and 26th of January), you wil never regret you did. You will be able to see and experience a broad array of cultural and entertainment activities of the old city.
The official website of the festival is: historicjeddah.com
“It was indeed a remarkable town. The streets were alleys, wood roofed in the main bazaar, but elsewhere open to the sky in the little gap between the tops of the lofty white-walled houses.” T.E. Lawrence