Historic old Jeddah awaits life-saving restoration

Wed Jan 9, 2013 9:06am EST
 

By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - In the heart of Saudi Arabia's sprawling Red Sea port city of Jeddah, centuries-old buildings tilt and buckle above the historic district's narrow alleys, withering away in the absence of decisive action to protect them.

The seventh-century historic district, with its mud and coral town houses adorned with ornate wooden balconies, holds the only remnants of the traditional architecture of the Hijaz, as the western Arabian Peninsula is known.

But while Jeddah is building the world's tallest tower as part of a modernization drive, efforts to preserve its oldest area are faltering.

"Every time I walk and see these houses it hurts," said Abir AbuSulayman, who lives in the modern part of Jeddah but lobbies for the restoration of the old city.

"I wasn't born here or ever lived in the area but I can feel how important it is and I feel proud that we have real history."

Restoration efforts have been left largely in private hands because Saudi authorities cannot by law intervene to renovate the privately owned homes in the district. Locals say the government has not shown enough interest in resolving the problem, or in breaking a logjam in financing the improvement of the area's public infrastructure.

As a result, a quarter of the houses in the district's square kilometer have collapsed, burnt down or been demolished in the past decade because home-owners cannot afford costly renovations and have little interest or incentive to do so.

Houses where the wealthiest Jeddah merchants once lived are now cheap dwellings for poor foreign laborers, beggars and illegal immigrants. Of the historic district's estimated 40,000 inhabitants, fewer than 5 percent are Saudis, the district's mayor Malak Baissa estimated.   Continued...

 
A general view shows historical buildings in Jeddah's historic district January 1,2013. In the heart of Saudi Arabia's sprawling Red Sea port city of Jeddah, centuries-old buildings tilt and buckle above the historic district's narrow alleys, withering away in the absence of decisive action to protect them. But while Jeddah is building the world's tallest tower as part of a modernisation drive, efforts to preserve its oldest area are faltering. Restoration efforts have been left largely in private hands because Saudi authorities cannot by law intervene to renovate the privately owned homes in the district. Picture taken January 1, 2013. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil