Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah, the City of a Thousand Mosques, is one of the most important historical cities of Islam. Because Jeddah stands in the immense shadows of Mecca and Medina, it is perhaps easy to forget that this ancient port city was once the commercial powerhouse of the region. It was Jeddah that made the Hejaz region economically viable in Muhammad’s day, and as the closest major port to Mecca, Jeddah made the holy cities and the Hajj accessible to millions upon millions of pilgrims from around the world. In fact, Jeddah’s airport still serves as the main point of entry into the country for visiting pilgrims to the shrines of Mecca and Medina. But Jeddah is more than just a transportation hub; it is in and of itself a beautiful city, adorned with more mosques than any other place in the Arabian Peninsula. Many pilgrims to Mecca now add a few days in Jeddah to their itineraries.
The city of Jeddah had been around for perhaps as long as a thousand years before the advent of Islam. According to one very popular legend, Eve, the wife of Adam, was buried in the area of Jeddah in primordial times. When Mecca and Medina became the chief religious centers of Islam, and pilgrimages to the Hejaz region became strongly encouraged for all Muslims, Jeddah’s future as a major regional city was assured. The closest major port to Mecca, Jeddah became the logical transit point for visitors to the area coming by sea, especially those coming from Egypt and North Africa.
In 647 AD, Uthman, the third Rashidun caliph, formally designated the small town of Jeddah as the official port of Mecca and the Hajj. Jeddah’s importance, and its population, exploded. Within a century it was the largest and most powerful commercial center in the Arabian Peninsula, a designation it would retain for more than a thousand years. Because of its size and strategic location, whoever controlled Jeddah effectively controlled Mecca, so it became a natural target for every would-be conquerer of the Middle East, from the Umayyads to the Ottomans. After a brief civil war following the end of World War I, Jeddah became part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1925.
The first wave of religious construction in Jeddah probably began during the earliest days of the Hajj, when mosques were opened to help accommodate the flow of pilgrims arriving in Arabia by sea. These institutions helped to prepare visitors for the rigors ahead, both religious and practical. They also probably helped pilgrims to feel at home. Jeddah boasted hundreds of mosques even in the Middle Ages, built by people of different cultures, backgrounds and languages. It was probably of great comfort for visitors from distant lands, many who had traveled for many months, to come to Jeddah and find a mosque where friendly faces could be seen and familiar tongues could be heard.
Unfortunately, because of internecine warfare, ambitious construction projects and the ravages of time, none of Jeddah’s earliest mosques are still standing. However, the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman occupations were prolific building periods for Jeddah, and there are many mosques that date from these eras, especially within the Old City. Jeddah’s oldest mosque is the 13th century Masjid Al-Shafei, which incorporates a 7th century minaret, one of the oldest Islamic structures standing in the world. Although it is only one of many mosques in the city, its antiquity makes it a favorite starting for pilgrims beginning the Hajj.
To walk through Jeddah is to walk through eight centuries of Islamic architectural history, and with respect to the religious centers of Mecca and Medina and the political center of Riyadh, Jeddah is the culturally richest city in the Arabian Peninsula. The old city, once enclosed in a wall, is easily discernable from the more modern buildings and neighborhoods in the area around it. Among the old city’s classic mosques are the Masjid Al-Me’emar and the Masjid Al-Hanafi, also both from the 13th century. The Masjid Uthman ibn Affan, another prominent mosque, dates from the 16th century. The Masjid Oukashah is very popular for worshippers. The old city’s most modern mosque, the Masjid Al-Basha, was originally an 18th century Ottoman, was rebuilt in 1978.
But the old city’s most famous mosque by far is the Masjid Al-Shafei. It was built during the Ayyubid era, and construction probably began during the reign of Saladin’s brother. The new mosque incorporated the minaret of an earlier mosque which had stood on the site. If the dating is correct, then the earlier mosque and its minaret were probably built during the reign of the caliph Uthman, thus tying two of Islam’s greatest leaders to the architectural legacy of the Masjid Al-Shafei. The mosque’s design is famous for incorporating openings which allow for greater air flow and light to enter.
The old city of Jeddah is located on the south side of the greater metro area close to the old port. It is extremely walkable and open to visitors of all faiths (for non-Muslims, this is as close to Mecca as they are ever likely to get). The Masjid Al-Shafei is on the east end of the old city, close to pilgrim road which leads to Mecca. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: http://sauditourism.sa/en (official tourism website of Saudi Arabia)
The city of Jeddah is home to many mosques, including some of the best-known modern era mosques in Saudi Arabia. The most famous of these is probably the famous Floating Mosque, which juts out into the Red Sea and is often the first mosque that many pilgrims see when arriving in Saudi Arabia by boat. The city’s largest mosque is the recently completed King Saud Mosque. The city’s most important ancient site, the Tomb of Eve, had been recognized and revered by the people of Arabia even before Muhammad’s time. The site has since been purged by local authorities and sealed off with concrete.