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Jeddah, the birth of a city

Last updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 3:56 PM

Maps showing the coastal itinerary leading to Jeddah from the port of Aden. The map was designed for the Sultan of Yemen Al-Malik Al-Mu’ayyad Dawud at the end of the 13th century. Conserved at the library of King Fahd in Riyadh, this unique manuscript was edited by Muhammad And Al-Rahim Jazim, researcher at the French center of archaeology and social sciences of Sanaa.

Roberta Fedele
Saudi Gazette


The history of Jeddah is closely tied to the history of the pilgrimage and to its strategic position on regional and international trade routes connecting the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, according to a professor at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne.

Eric Vallet, an associate professor at the university, analyzed the most relevant moments that characterized the history of the city in the first 10 centuries of the Muslim era. The researcher shared the results of his studies during an exclusive lecture at the French Consulate General.

He said: “No other port is linked to the history of Islam as the port of Jeddah.

“Certainly a small settlement existed in this area during the pre-Islamic era but it is only with the advent of Islam in the seventh century and the establishment of the caliphate that the city came really out of the shadows.

“According to the most ancient Islamic sources, it was the third Caliph Uthman b. Affan who decided in 648 CE to design Jeddah as the port of Makkah, replacing d’Al-Shuayba port.

“This is considered the first determinant episode in the history of the city.”

Jeddah didn’t represent at that time the center of a political power like other Islamic capitals (Cairo, Baghdad, Istanbul, etc.) and narrating its history was not an easy task for Vallet who had to rely on few and incomplete sources.

A useful point of reference for his research was “Al-sila wa-l-‘udda fi ta’ ri Bandar Judda”, a book written in the second half of the 16th century by the Preacher of the Grand Mosque of Jeddah Abd al-Qadir Amad Ibn Faraj al-Shafi.

“Ibn Faraj doesn’t offer a chronologically continuous account of the history of Jeddah but distinguishes between two periods.

“The initial one covers the first centuries of Islam until the end of the 11th century and is characterized by the presence of the Persians who surrounded the city by a defensive wall, dug numerous cisterns and built several houses.

“The second period starts in the 12th century with the end of the Persian domination and continues until the 16th century.

“This period is closer to the epoch of Ibn Faraj who mentions the construction of a new defensive wall around Jeddah in 1505 by the Mameluke Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri and the increasing power obtained by the Ottomans.”

Vallet attached ample relevance during his lecture to the importance of the Persian presence in Jeddah until the end of the 11th century.

The main sources of reference used by the researcher are the accounts of the 10th century Arab Geographer al-Maqdisi and the 13th century Arab traveler Ibn al-Mujawir, who attributed to the Persians the commercial booming of Jeddah in the first centuries of Islam.

“According to Al-Mujawir, the initial development of Jeddah was particularly due to merchants from the grand port of Siraf on the Persian coast of the Arab Gulf.

“Famous for their trades with India and China, these merchants supplied the Hijaz with a variety of goods from the Orient.

“Their network comprised all the main ports of the Arab Gulf and their key distribution point was in Sharma, a site on the Hadhramaut coast that was an ideal conjunction point between three major maritime routes.

“Political instability and increasing concurrence with Egyptian traders caused a gradual decline of these merchants’ activity.

“The Sirafi were obliged in the end of the 11th century to leave Jeddah.”

With the decline of the Siraf merchants and end of the Persian rule, the activity of Jeddah started to appear, according to Vallet, more closely tied to the pilgrimage.

The researcher mentioned two episodes in particular, including the establishment of the maritime Aydhab-Jeddah route as obligatory passage for pilgrims coming from Egypt and the Maghreb and the development of maritime relations with Yemen.

“Every year during the period of Hajj tens of small navies, called ‘Jilab,’ arrived in Jeddah full of pilgrims, merchants and numerous goods destined to the Hijaz.

“The coastal itinerary leading to Jeddah from the port of Aden also appeared on a unique map designed for the Sultan of Yemen al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad Dawud at the end of the 13th century.

“On this map, Jeddah looked as an integral part of the sultanate of Yemen. However, this authority wasn’t exclusive. “Also, the emirs of Makkah in fact claimed a control over the seasonal port of the pilgrimage and started in the 14th century to confiscate the goods carried on the ‘Jilab’.

“As a consequence, the sultans of Yemen boycotted the port of Jeddah for five years at the beginning of the 15th century until the balance of powers in the Red Sea drastically changed.”

Vallet highlighted in the conclusive part of his lecture the veritable renaissance experienced by Jeddah between the 15th and 16th centuries.

During this period the big Muslim merchants of India started to experiment with a new maritime route connecting them directly to Jeddah without passing through the port of Aden. Until then, Aden was considered the only possible passage for whoever wanted to reach the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean.

“The arrival of navies from India to the port of Jeddah caused an incredible urban development.

“The city started to expand with the construction of new monuments like the Shumayla mosque and the installation of numerous families that chose Jeddah as their residence.

“Surrounded by a strong defensive wall in 1505 to 1507, the city acquired the physiognomy of a traditional Muslim town.”

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