When vacationing in Jeddah, you cannot miss Balad, the city’s old town. This historic area in the heart of a modern cosmopolitan is really called ‘Al-Balad’ or Old Town, but people simply refer to it as Balad for short. It is primarily known for its flea markets, traditional structures and old houses.
Jeddah’s history may be traced 2,500 years ago when early fishermen came and settled along the coast of the Red Sea. The fishing tribe was called Qua’a. In the 7th century, the place was called Al-Balad and served as Jeddah’s historic center for trade and commerce. It used to have a protective wall until it was dismantled in the 1940s. Al-Balad lost its significance only in the 1970s when Jeddah became wealthy all of a sudden, thanks to the oil boom. In the 1980s, the city experienced exponential growth and development that people, traders and merchants originally from Al-Balad left the old place and moved to the northern area of the city where the economic progress is in full bloom.
They left largely to forget their old life of hardship, poverty and crowded living in the old city, as poor immigrants moved in to take control of Jeddah’s historic city segment. Not long after, the municipality of Jeddah realized the historical significance of Al-Balad and took steps towards its preservation. The Jeddah Historical Preservation Society was established in 1991 and was tasked primarily to preserve the old Al-Balad houses and buildings that reflected traditional Saudi architecture. In 2002, the society used a huge sum of many amounting to millions of dollars for the protection and preservation of this important city heritage, which is now easily referred to as Balad or Old Jeddah.
Today, it is the top tourist attraction in Jeddah. There’s no way not to see, dine, look around, or shop in Old Jeddah. Inside is a wide market area where tourists can find everything and anything to their fancy. There is a number of local markets that sell textiles, traditional clothes, electronics, jewelry, gold and silver ornaments, and other unique souvenir items.
The place could get very crowded. Hundreds of people fight to make their way through the narrow cobbled stone lanes to get to the shops. Street hawkers add to the crowd and confusion.
Locals have gotten used to the hustle and bustle, the shouting and haggling. Some foreigners may be shocked from so much shouting and crowding, but most are actually delighted to experience authentic Jeddah way of life. It wouldn’t hurt tourists to join the crowd of buyers and sellers and try haggling themselves since most local items on sale are unique and very cheap. The exotic aroma of local spices and foods for sale is quite inviting as well. This is the type of local destination that backpackers and adventurous tourists love to see.
Apart from the flea markets and street shops, Old Jeddah’s other main attractions are the ancient Qua’a houses that were built from corals and sea shells. Early fishermen settlers quarried building materials from the coral reef and cemented them with clay. But what truly makes Balad unique is the way the old and traditional blend with the new and modern. Alongside historic structures stand modern skyscrapers, business establishment and urban landmarks, a leading example of which is Jeddah’s impressive National Commercial Bank building.