A Morning in Jeddah, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in December 2009
Jeddah souk scene #1, 16-second video clip
Jeddah souk scene #2, 33-second video clip
Jeddah sailaway, 46-second video clip


On the morning of 7 April 2009 during a cruise from Dubai to Athens my fiance Barbara and I joined a three-hour group tour of Jeddah while our ship, Silversea Cruises' 296-passenger Silver Wind, docked at Jeddah Islamic Port for six hours.  We had been at sea for three and a half days sailing in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea since departing from Salalah, Oman; and our next port of call would be Safaga, Egypt one and a half days later. 

The commercial and industrial center of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city with a population of 3.4 million, lies just south of and across the Red Sea from the Egypt/Sudan border.  Thought to have been settled for about two and a half millenia, Jeddah grew in importance under the Ottomans and later fell under British sway.  Finally Jeddah came under the control of the Al Saud dynasty in 1925.  With a population of 10,000 and an area of only one square kilometer in 1948, the area of Jeddah has exploded in recent decades to the extent that it now exceeds 1,000 square km (384 square miles).

Today some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims transit Jeddah annually.  Of that number, the city's port serves as the gateway to Mecca for some 80,000 pilgrims from all over the world with the remainder arriving mostly by air.  Because of its many pilgrim visitors and expatriate workers, Jeddah is considered to be more cosmopolitan than most other Saudi cities. 

Although we were not able to view it during our visit, Jeddah's most famous landmark is the King Fahd Fountain.  Situated in the Red Sea and powered by two pumps which deliver more than 1,250 liters (330 gallons) per second, this fountain is, at 260 meters (845 feet), the world's highest.  Jeddah also boasts a popular Red Sea corniche drive 32 km (20 miles) in length.  Various downtown souks and suburban shopping centers offer up everything from gold and silver jewelry and perfumes to carpets and textiles to spices and electronics.  However, nearly all goods are imported except for the locally-grown dates.  Buyers are expected to bargain in all but the largest stores.

Prior to our call at Jeddah, cruise ship passengers had been requested to turn in any alcoholic drinks in their possession.  Stewardesses removed these items from the cabins the night before our visit and then returned them after the ship had departed.  Similarly, the ship's bars served only non-alcoholic drinks while in port.  Then, soon after departure, the ship's bars were again restocked with alcohol.

Passengers had also been forewarned that only guests who pre-booked tours would be allowed ashore by Saudi authorities.  Women guests were told that they must wear the long, loose overgarment known as an abaya as well as a head scarf.  Male passengers, on the other hand, were requested not to wear shorts and were encouraged to don a long-sleeved shirt for our tour. 

During our brief time ashore we walked through Al Balad, Jeddah's oldest district.  Later we drove to the area of the gold and textile souks and then continued on to the central fish market before returning back to the port.  
In Al Balad our guide led us down several narrow streets lined with historic multi-story buildings, most of which were constructed of coral interspersed with wooden beams. Some of these buildings sported mashrabiyas, the exterior lattice woodwork which spoke to the wealth of Jeddah's merchants.  The mashrabiyas allowed women in the houses to enjoy the breeze while remaining obscured from those walking by in the streets below.  Al Balad had once been surrounded by a city wall.  However, this was demolished after World War II to allow for petroleum-financed urban development.  Today, while some of the old city gates still survive, much of Jeddah is no more recent than the 1950s. 

Our tour group visited the Nasseef House, formerly the home of the head of one of Jeddah's major trading families and now a museum.  The house was constructed between 1872 and 1881 for a merchant who was serving as governor of Jeddah at the time.  Although the Nasseef House contains 106 rooms, only a few on the ground floor are accessible to the public as part of the museum.  Interestingly, it is said that for many years the yard of this house contained the only tree in Al Balad!  This story helps one appreciate the scarcity of water in the area before modern times.

Jeddah's tropical climate ranges from hot to warm, with summer lasting eight to ten months per year.  During the summer afternoon temperatures typically exceed 40 C. (104 F.) while in the winter an afternoon temperature of 25 C. (77 F.) is more normal.  After sunset the sea breezes are refreshing at any time of year.  Jeddah's rainfall is limited.  In fact, there are only five days a year when rainfall exceeds 0.1 mm (0.0004 inches).  December and January represent the rainiest months.  Total annual rainfall is only 63 mm (2.5 inches).  Jeddah's humidity ranges from 50% in July to 61% in September and October. 

Both Egypt Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines operate multiple nonstop services daily between Cairo and Jeddah.  It is possible to obtain entry to Saudi Arabia as a tourist by joining one of the few English-speaking group tours which operate annually.  However, a Saudi tourist visa is unlikely to be granted to any traveler not in such a group unless that individual has obtained an invitation from a Saudi Arabian national.     


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 319 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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