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February 4, 2014

Tuesday, February 04, 2014 - , No comments

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Downtown Jeddah ('Balad') Throws 10-Day Historic Area Festival in an effort to gain protective status

Beat Nour Wali (Photo by Christiana
by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas

Last month, 16-25 January, Saudi Arabia held its first “Jeddah Historic Area Festival” (‘Kunna Kida’). The executive director of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) in the Makkah province, Muhammad Al-Amri, stated that the ten-day festival was an opportunity for locals and expatriates to “closely relate to the tales of the past century.” This was achieved through theatrical performances, stand-up comedy shows, traditional competitions, heritage and cultural shows, a number of cultural competitions, family entertainment programs, antique car exhibitions and folk dances. The first day saw 40,000 attendees; over 750,000 people attended the festival. The event was held with the aim of successfully earning downtown Jeddah (known as ‘Balad’) the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Old Hijazi building in a relatively good condition still
 inhabited today. (Photo by author)
Jeddah, the largest city in the Mekkah Province, is located on the western coast of Saudi Arabia. The city pre-dates Islam and has always been the largest port in the Red Sea. It is also the gateway to the Two Holy Cities, Mekkah and Medina. Jeddah is Saudi’s city of arts and culture, a prime of example of this being its open-air sculptures commonly found on the roundabouts and along the Corniche.[i] However, according to UNESCO, Balad is the most important area in Jeddah, ‘due to its authenticity, distinguished planning, and unique architecture. It contains many historical landmarks and buildings such as: the Old Jeddah Wall and Gates, the old quarters (Al-Mazloom Quarter, Al-Sham Quarter, Al-Yaman Quarter, and Al-Bahar Quarter), there are also a number of historical mosques (Uthamn Ibn Affan Mosque, Al-Shafeey Mosque, Al-Basha Mosque, Ukash Mosque, AI-Meamar Mosque, and Al-Hanafi Mosque). The old Area also houses a number of old Souqs (Al-Nada Souq, AI-Khasequiyyah Souq, Al-Alaweey Souq, Al-Saghah (Jewelry) Souq) and a large number of heritage buildings that are all still in use.’[ii]

Beautiful example of the wooden lattices on the
windows. (Photo by author)
To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. Balad meets a few of the criterion, such as criteria (iii) as it bears an exceptional testimony to cultural tradition. For example, at the festival, there was a boat display of the oldest boat models used in the past by Red Sea fishermen. Salama Idress Ali, whose father is a famous boat maker, explained that he inherited the profession. The boats they create are now obsolete for their original purpose but Ali continues to make them as decorative models whereby anyone can order one.[iii] Balad also fulfils criteria (iv) as it has outstanding examples of types of building and architecture that illustrate significant stages in human history. This can be seen through its unique assemblage of wooden lattices that cover windows, a common attribute to Hijazi architecture.

This is an example of one of the buildings currently being
renovated. (Photo by author)
At a meeting of the International Heritage Committee in Bahrain in July 2011, Saudi’s bid to include Jeddah as a world heritage site was rejected. This was largely due to Balad’s state of neglect and the lack of public awareness of the importance and value of heritage sites. According to Ziyad Al-Dirais, UNESCO’s Saudi representative: “[Saudi has] to have a longer-term plan in order to be able to rehabilitate and maintain the historic locations. [They] hope to correct the situation and to nominate Jeddah once again with UNESCO as a potential world heritage site.”[iv] It is expected that Balad’s file will be submitted for voting at the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, 15-25 June 2014. Aside from the prestige from becoming a World Heritage Site, a country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites. To date, there are only two UNESCO Sites in Saudi: Mada’in Saleh and Al-Dariya.

One of the many buildings that recently collapsed.
To avoid another rejection, Saudi has allocated SR50 million ($13 million) to renovate Balad’s roads, lighting and buildings. Eighteen buildings were recently restored, one of which is being transformed into a ‘heritage hotel’ while the Jeddah municipality plans to renovate 34 more of the 350 odd historical buildings. (Over 200 houses were destroyed in floods and accidents while many simply collapse, the most recent of which was two weeks ago.) It also intends to continue holding a range of events and festivals as a means of promoting the city's culture and identity[v], such as “Jeddah Art Week”, 1-6 February, and “21,39”, 4-8 February. Such active involvement and growth in funding is at odds with the destruction of cultural heritage sites seen in Mekkah over last year as a result of the city’s expansion and modernization for the increasing number of pilgrims ("Essay: Can there be a balance between the expansion of Makkah and the preservation of cultural heritage", 6 Sept 2013).

Will raising awareness through its festival, active involvement and growth in funding persuade the World Heritage Committee to accept Balad as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Will it reject the application again due to Balad’s neglect? I leave you with a few photos I personally took of the area on 1 February for you can decide whether the historic town will be ready for the World Heritage Committee in four months.

More rumble from collapsed buildings and
disregarded  material that the Jeddah Municipality
has not cleared away.
Extremely dirty streets (Photo by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas)
Dilapidated building (Photo by
Christiana O'Connell-Schizas)
Entrance of building in previous photos.
Dilapidated building(Photo by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas)
Buildings in disrepair and more rubble.(Photo by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas)
Christiana O'Connell-Schizas, a solicitor, lived in Saudia Arabia for 18 years and returns frequently to visit. She took all of these photos last weekend in Jeddah.

Fareed, Saleh. "Festival Offers a Glimpse into Jeddah's past." Saudi Gazette. Saudi Gazette, 7 Jan. 2014. Available at <>. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014).

"Historical Area of Jeddah." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, 28 Nov. 2006. Available at <>. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014).

Khan, Fouzia. "Historic Jeddah Festival Spirit in Its Boom." Arab News. Arab News, 29 Jan. 2014. Available at <>. (last accessed 2 Feb 2014).

Mohammed, Irfan. "Jeddah Heritage Festival Concludes Its 10-day Run." Arab News. Arab News, 27 Jan. 2014. Available at <>. (last accessed 2 Feb 2014).

Shaw, Garry. "Heritage hopefuls renew their bids to Unesco” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 23 Jan. 2014.

"UNESCO Refuses to Consider Old Jeddah a World Heritage Site." Arab News. Arab News, 12 June 2011. Available at <>. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014).

"UNESCO Rejects Old Jeddah World Heritage Site Bid." Construction Week Online Middle East. Construction Week Online, 13 June 2011. Available at <>. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014).

"The Criteria for Selection." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO. Available at <>. (last accessed 27 Jan 2014).

[i] There are many sculptures along the Corniche, some by internationally renown sculptors, such as: César Baldaccini, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Joan Miró and Victor Vasarely
[ii] "Historical Area of Jeddah." UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO
[iii] Khan, Fouzia. "Historic Jeddah Festival Spirit in Its Boom." Arab News. Arab News, 29 Jan. 2014.
[iv] "UNESCO Rejects Old Jeddah World Heritage Site Bid." Construction Week Online Middle East. Construction Week Online, 13 June 2011.
[v] Fareed, Saleh. "Festival Offers a Glimpse into Jeddah's past." Saudi Gazette. Saudi Gazette, 7 Jan. 2014.