{short description of image} Preserving Jeddah' s Historic Buildings


The historic Naseef House, built in 1872, has been restored.

The historic Naseef House, built in 1872, has been restored.

One of the most extensive programs being conducted this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the recapture of Riyadh by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud involves the preservation and revitalization of the historic section of Jeddah.

First inhabited some 3,000 years ago, Jeddah owes its prominence to its strategic location in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula on the Red Sea. Historical accounts mention the city as a stopping point along the trade routes that connected India and the Far East to the Mediterranean. Its vast harbor has for centuries handled vessels carrying cargo to ports throughout the known world as well as ships bearing pilgrims to the Holy Mosque in nearby Makkah.

The interior of the Naseef House

The interior of the Naseef House

Commerce has traditionally been Jeddah's principal activity and, over the centuries, has brought wealth to its inhabitants. This prosperity was reflected in the homes of the merchants - large structures lavishly decorated inside and out. Yet despite its relative prosperity, Jeddah remained largely unchanged, covering an area of less than one square mile surrounded by a protective wall that gave indication of the instability that dominated the region.

Jeddah entered a new era beginning in 1925, the year when King Abdul Aziz extended his rule to the city, bringing security and growth. Within a decade, the city spilled over the restrictive walls, expanding in every direction. Today, Jeddah is a large, modern city and a center of industry, commerce and banking.

Building are due for major restoration.

Buildings due for major restoration.

Like many other cities around the world, the rush to modernize Jeddah and provide its citizens with educational, commercial, health and other services shifted the focus to its suburbs, where unrestricted growth was more easily attainable than in the confines of the old city.

Even as the city was growing, efforts were being made to preserve Jeddah's heritage. Projects involving the restoration of some of the older buildings were financed by the Jeddah Municipality with support from the private sector. These efforts received a major boost when, in anticipation of the centennial held in January 1999, the Jeddah Historical Area Preservation Department was established to restore old Jeddah. The department's mandate was to bring under one program the different projects undertaken by various government agencies to preserve the city's heritage.

Naseef house restoration

Naseef house restoration

The department's first task was to collate the vast amount of information necessary to realize its mandate. This included historic as well as modern books, reports, surveys and maps. It then initiated research studies on building techniques and materials used in the construction of old buildings. Structures that were important, either from a historic or design aspect, had to be selected and individually studied to determine the extent of restoration work needed for each. Traditional craftsmen had to be identified and contacted to work directly on the project. They were also employed to conduct special courses set up to instruct young Saudis in the traditional building techniques that would be needed in the restoration work.

Initially some 200 old buildings were designated as historic structures for restoration work. Some of these were purchased through a fund set up with donations from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz and senior Saudi leaders, as well as from contributions from private individuals and companies. These structures would be renovated and turned into shops, restaurants and private dwellings. Their new residents would then have to maintain them according to guidelines set up by the department. The private owners of other historic structures would receive assistance and support from the department for their restoration.

Naseef house restoration

Naseef house restoration

Under this program the new department aimed to restore approximately 20 structures a year. So far, preservation work has been completed on more than 40 buildings, and the department is engaged in work on a new group of 20. These structures are scattered throughout old Jeddah. Crews of craftsmen, including masons, woodworkers, stoneworkers and plasterers are working at each of these sites.

The most historically significant structure among the 200 selected for restoration and preservation is Bayt Naseef (Naseef House). Built in 1872 by Omar Naseef, a prominent citizen of the city, it has more than 100 rooms on four levels, as well as outer buildings. When he arrived in Jeddah in 1925, King Abdul Aziz stayed at this house. For this reason, the house has been restored and turned into a museum, which opened in January 1999.

Naseef house restoration

Naseef house restoration

Although larger and more important than most other structures on the preservation list, Naseef House is similar in design and construction techniques. The foundation and walls are built entirely with coral taken from the seashore or from the surrounding hills, which were below sea level millions of years ago. The coral blocks were held together with mortar made by mixing sand and lime, which was produced by firing coral in large vats. The floors of each level were constructed by laying unhewn wooden poles side-by-side and covering them with palm matting and mortar.

Structures built with these materials were not only cheaper than those built with stone, but are also surprisingly durable. Department Director Sami Saleh Nawar, a civil engineer by training, noted that after more than a century of hard use, with as many as 100 people occupying the house at one time, the building is still structurally sound, a testament to the durability of traditional building techniques and materials.

Historic structure under restoration

Historic structure under restoration

As an example, he cites the wood used in building the house. In a hot and humid climate such as that of Jeddah, wood usually does not last long before succumbing to the ravages of moisture and insects. To protect it, the wood was coated with a liquid extracted from the Al-Bisham plant found in the mountains. Shark oil was also used for the same purpose. The resulting brown stain was an effective preservative.

As do most traditional homes in old Jeddah, the Naseef House has exquisite exterior woodwork. Instead of ordinary windows, all openings are covered with wooden grills known as mashbariyah and projecting bay windows with internal seating known as roshan. Most also have a special sitting area on the roof known as kharajah. The elaborate latticework that covered all three allowed an unhindered circulation of air without compromising privacy. It also served as the principal exterior decorative element for most buildings and, as such, incorporated complex and beautiful patterns. Although the most common color for exterior wood in these old buildings is the brown stain left by the preservative, many are painted turquoise or green.

Historic structure under restoration

Historic structure under restoration

Most old buildings in Jeddah served not only as the home of the owner, but also as a place of work. Walking along the souqs (markets) and alleyways of old Jeddah, one sees many such structures with a shop, workshop or storage area on the street level and living space above. The Naseef House had storage rooms on the street level as well as on the fourth floor. To allow beasts of burden access to the storage area on the upper floor, the stairs are built with small risers and wide tread.

The craftsmen working on the restoration of Naseef House and the other historic buildings are dedicated to returning these structures to their original form. Each specializes in one aspect of traditional construction and moves from one project to the next. Managing the restoration program, Mr. Nawar and his assistants supervise work on as many as 20 buildings at a time.

Old and new buildings represent the past and the present of

Old and new buildings represent the past and the present of Jeddah

The warm greetings he receives from shopkeepers and passersby as he walks from one site to another reflect the support of the entire community for the project, which aims not only to restore and preserve old buildings in Jeddah, but also to protect the city's heritage and rejuvenate its historic section. As Mr. Nawar points out, the project has breathed new life into the old section of Jeddah. Most historic structures are working buildings that have been continuously inhabited, and by restoring them, the department prevents their destruction and ensures their continued use for the foreseeable future. All the restored buildings, including the few that had been abandoned because of safety concerns, have been immediately occupied and play an active part in the life of the community.

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The restoration project also ensures the survival of traditional architecture by requiring that modern buildings in old Jeddah conform to the exterior design elements of the historic structures.

More than the beauty of the restored buildings and the modern structures that emulate them, a visitor walking through old Jeddah is struck by the bustling activity and sense of community the restoration project has brought to a section of the city that once was threatened with neglect .



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