129‘Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink …’. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner would have understood what Jeddah’s population faced for much of their 2000-year history. They were short of water. This city of three and a half million was until a century ago a treeless coastal settlement encircled by massive walls. It was dependent on conduits and meagre springs in the distant foothills of the mountains of the Hijaz. Why was Jeddah here at all?

Classical scholars disagree on how Jeddah got its name. Some claim it is derived from jaddah (grandmother) and is named after the universal grandmother Eve, who is buried in Jeddah. Respected early geographers, al-Bakri and al-Makdisi took a different line. Juddah (pronounced jidda locally) simply means ‘seashore’.

Situated halfway down the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia Jeddah was in ancient times a fishing village. Now Jeddah’s once-famous lagoon is sterile, land-locked by new development and void of fishing boats. Huge powerboats thunder out from the Jeddah Creek to fish for sport not subsistence.

Week-end divers explore the coral reefs that lie close to the many resorts. These have sprung up along the coast to the north of Jeddah. Under the eye of the diving instructors at the Al-Bilad Beach it is thrilling to glide in shallow water over coral and brightly coloured fish only an arms-length away. At a flick of a flipper, you can soar out over the edge of an abyss. The reef drops away vertically. Far beneath the shoals of fish is the blackness of the deep. It is the nearest thing to flying – but also chilling. You are looking into the Great Rift Valley fault. Here beneath the Red Sea Africa rubs shoulders with Arabia. From Kenya, up through the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley runs the edge of one of nature’s battering rams.

The Arabian Peninsula is being pushed under the Gulf to the east while in the west the mountains of the Hijaz are imperceptibly but measurably rising. There are signs of geologically recent volcanic activity – a million years ago. Jagged lava-fields or harra can impede the traveller.

The land and vegetation is as sparse and barren as the sea-coast is rich and varied. The mountains rise from the inland plain as steeply as the reef drops into the depths.
Here travel was always difficult but was once well rewarded. From the Levant to South Arabia, where the mountain peaks reach 13,000 feet, ran ancient trade routes. These supplied Egypt, Greece and Rome with a must-have commodity for funerary and religious use – spices.

Controlled by the Nabataeans and Sabaeans, coveted and eventually hi-jacked by the Romans, the trade in frankincense and myrrh made many fortunes and cost countless lives. From the death of Alexander to the acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire this much-contested commerce was the oil and gas trade of the ancient world.

Jeddah, ‘Bride of the Sea’ as it still styles itself, played a part in this trade. Two hours drive north of Jeddah is Al-Jar. There are tumbled sabkha and coral walls, the remains of a quay and evidence of furnace hearths. Everywhere are curved glass handles and shards of fine blue-green Roman glass. This was a processing and export centre. From the caravan trains Al-Jar received the precious spices. They were despatched across the Red Sea to Egypt and beyond.

Sea-borne commerce has continued to feed the Jeddah merchants. During the early Islamic expansion into Africa, Jeddah was a major supply port. The Caliphate moved to Baghdad, ending that lucrative phase. Then a growing European taste for luxury goods from the East caused steady trade through the Red Sea in ivory, gold, coffee, leather hides, ostrich feathers and slaves. Clara Semple’s book on the Maria Theresa thaler, ‘A Silver Legend’, (Barzan Publishing, 2005), gives an insight into relative values. In the early nineteenth century an Arabian horse might fetch two thousand thalers, an elephant two hundred and a slave girl only twenty to forty thalers.

By that time the imperial expansions of England, France, Portugal and the Dutch had taken business away from local Jeddah merchants. They were left with only a limited entrepôt trade and the provisioning of passing ships. Some years ago an Oxford University gathering of archaeologists was treated to a paper on ‘anomalous coal deposits’ on the Red Sea coast. Early steam ships sailing to British India had a limited range. Sailing colliers were sent ahead to create coal dumps at regular intervals along the route to India. Within a few decades steamers had improved – enabling them to by-pass these supplies. Now raven-black piles of Welsh steam coal can be found on the coast of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. They will surely be of as much interest to future archaeologists as those Roman glass fragments at Al-Jar.

Jeddah slumbered on into the twentieth century.

‘It was like a dead city, so clean underfoot and so quiet. Its winding, even streets were floored with damp sand solidified by time and as silent to the tread as any carpet. The lattices and wall-returns deadened all reverberation of voice. There were no carts, nor any streets wide enough for carts, no shod animals, no bustle anywhere’

T.E. Lawrence’s description of Jeddah in 1916 marks a low point in the city’s history. The Ottomans – who were now at war with the British, had long occupied the Hijaz. The town had been attacked and the Turkish garrison dispersed.

‘The atmosphere was oppressive, deadly. There seemed no life in it. It was not burning hot, but held a moisture and a sense of great age and exhaustion such as seemed to belong to no other place’.

For a week or so each year Jeddah was and still is certainly like ‘no other place’. In 647CE, soon after the Revelation of Islam the Caliph Uthman ibn Affan had decreed that a port should be created in Jeddah for hajjis visiting Makkah. Jeddah was the gateway to Makkah for hundreds of thousands and later millions of pilgrims from all over the Islamic world. It is said that the Arabic word for right (yameen) emerged because, when a pilgrim landed at Jeddah, south and therefore Yemen lay to his right.

Pilgrims brought money in many currencies. The merchants of Jeddah were delighted to take it from them. Commerce thrived and the variety of tongues and cultures made Jeddah among the most cosmopolitan places in the world.

In 1925 King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and his forces ‘driven by a powerful sense of religious destiny’ took over the Hijaz. Things began to happen again in Jeddah. Although oil was discovered in Dhahran it was in Jeddah five years earlier that the original concession deal had been struck. Standard Oil paid 35,000 gold sovereigns across the table to Ibn Saud’s Finance Minister. Entrepreneurs and wealth then flowed into the Kingdom.

In 1947 Bechtel, a company that went on to create so much of the Saudi infrastructure, undertook to remove the massive outer walls of Jeddah. Freed at last, a period of unrestrained and largely haphazard development followed as Jeddah expanded. By the 1970’s building materials were coming in so fast by sea that docks and cranes could not cope – so for months on end helicopters were used to unload ships.

Jeddah as home to national carrier Saudia was the first Saudi city to have a spectacular new airport, King Abdulaziz International, covering more than 40 square miles. The Hajj Terminal alone handles more than one and a half million pilgrims annually.

Jeddah is finding a new role to play, particularly since the move to Riyadh in the 1980’s of all embassies and many related government offices. It has returned to what it knows best; job-intensive commerce.

Saudi Arabia needs to provide its fast growing population with jobs. Petrochemical projects may cost $billions to build but offer employment to only a few. Service industries, manufacturing industries and tourism along with restaurants, hotels and transport, are all by contrast labour-intensive.

Glaxo Smith-Kline, United Sugar, Siemens, Islamic Development Bank, Saudi Cables, Shell’s SasLubco engine oil joint-venture and PASCO aviation re-fuelling enterprise already provide local jobs and prosperity for Jeddah. WTO accession for the Kingdom and the promise of a high-speed rail-link with Riyadh and the Eastern Province are expected to germinate more.

Meanwhile, Jeddah continues to develop as a cultural centre. More than 400 sculptures adorn the Corniche and give a name to Jeddah’s many roundabouts. It started as a tongue in cheek exercise – re-using old boats, an early Saudi aircraft, cars; even the original sea-water condenser is now a sculpture (Jeddah’s chronic water problem has been solved by desalination). Among the better known sculptors are Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Jean Arp.

In December 2005 work started on the $26 billion ‘King Abdullah Economic City. A new suburb of Jeddah, it is the largest single private sector development in Saudi Arabia. This is specifically designed to create employment opportunities and attract foreign investment.

Jeddah, grandmother of Arabian cities, has plenty of life in her yet.

– John Herbert

This article originally appeared in THINK Magazine


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