March 29, 2022. 92°F/34°C
We were not up early enough to catch this gorgeous shot coming into Jeddah’s Harbour this morning, but a fellow passenger Rob Evanko was and did. The harbour by daylight is simply a busy industrial port, but at night its lighthouse is stunning.
Saudi Arabia has only just opened up for cruise ships.
This is Viking’s first ever time here, although another cruise line visited earlier this month. As a result, Viking is taking a real interest in how this “first contact” goes. To that end, a contingent of Viking corporate staff and officers, as well as Viking’s owner Torstein Hagen, and his daughter Karine (the most recognizable face of Viking), as well as their dog Finse, are due to join our ship for a couple of days.
Saudi Arabia is arguably the strictest of the Islamic countries through which we will travel, but Jeddah is the most progressive city in the kingdom. We’re interested to see how the local tour guides that Viking has arranged handle our group of predominantly North American tourists.
Viking has already dealt with some of the country’s restrictions. A couple of nights ago we got a wine and spirits order form for our cabin, since all alcohol service will be suspended for the four days while we are in Saudi Arabian ports, and we’ve been asked not to consume or carry alcohol in public areas of our ship (including our balconies) during those port days. In fact, before entering port, Saudi authorities will be verifying that all the alcohol on board is “bonded” and locked down.
Ted and I still haven’t opened the bottle of sparkling wine that was in our mini fridge when we boarded in December; we don’t really drink in our room. After a quick two second discussion, we decided we didn’t need to order anything. A few “dry” days (it’s only 4 after all) will be good for our livers, although I’m not 100% sure that more foamy lattés are a lot better for our waistlines than all the wine and fancy cocktails we’ve been having.
Our shore excursion manager has been in daily contact with the other cruise line that visited here this year, to hear about their experience, and also in contact with the Saudi Tourist Board to verify rules. Travelling only within Viking’s guided tours, Ted will wear long loose pants and long-sleeved shirts (which he would wear anyway in the hot sun), and I brought both loose pants and a kurta (a long Indian tunic with elbow-covering sleeves) and a modest loose long dress (an abaya) and head covering. We’re both proponents of “When in Rome, do as the Romans”.
On to our activities.
We signed up for two excursions today: a guided morning walk through Historic Jeddah, and an evening desert sunset/Bedouin nomad camp dinner.
Jeddah is a big city by any standard, with around 6 million people – not counting the suburbs. It’s the second busiest port in the Middle East (after Dubai), and the main gateway to Mecca.
We got a firsthand look at the new cruise ship welcome centre as we completed our “face-to-face” entry process to the country, being both photographed and electronically fingerprinted before getting our passports stamped. We also had to show our e-visas, our vaccine cards, and upload a Saudi contact-tracing app to our phones, although I don’t think they ended up activating the app. Covid processes are still a moving target worldwide.
I know waiting to be “processed” ten passengers at a time frustrated some people, but Ted and I found it no more onerous – or threatening – than going through customs and TSA checks at a North American airport. At least in Saudi there were chairs, and we weren’t dragging suitcases! (Plus, the customs official gave my abaya a thumbs up.)
Our tour guide today was Tatal Abdullah Samarkandi, a recently retired architect and Vice Chairman of the Saudi Council of Engineers. He’s also an organizer of the upcoming month-long cultural festival taking place in Jeddah during Ramadan. I’d say he was WAY over-qualified to be a tour guide, but eminently qualified to act as an ambassador for Saudi Arabia to western tourists.
The first portion of our tour involved a panoramic bus ride around modern Jeddah, catching glimpses of huge modern hotels, banks, business centres, waterfront parks, art installations, and two of Saudi Arabia’s many Guiness World Record sites: the world’s tallest flagpole (170 metres/557.6 feet) at King Abdullah Square, and the world’s highest water fountain (King Fahd’s Fountain, shooting water 260 m/853ft high, but sadly only turned on in the evenings).
There are a LOT of cars on the road in Jeddah, many of them looking like they’ve been sideswiped more than once. If our trip today during non-rush hour was any indication of the speed with which lane changes are made, generally accompanied by horn honking and UNACCOMPANIED by signalling, then it’s no wonder vehicles get banged up. Many of the roads are 6-8 lanes wide, with lane markings that seem to be just suggestions, and roundabouts are everywhere. In the past 4 years rules have changed to allow women to drive, which means even more cars on the road.
We passed by Confirmation Square, where the populace gather each time a new King comes into power, to “confirm” their support for him. The art installation here is one of hundreds in the city. Our guide told us that Jeddah’s mayor proposed to King Salman that the city use international art as part of its plan to attract tourists, and that King Salman and the Crown Prince liked the idea so much that they gave him an unlimited budget.
Once we’d driven past the key sites in the modern city, and noticed the vast amount of new construction going on, it was time to get off the bus and walk through Historic Jeddah, with buildings ranging from 250 – 600 years old.
Our guide gave us detailed insight into how these multi-story buildings were constructed of coral stone reinforced with teak or mahogany. The decorative wooden elements – doors, and the uniquely Islamic style of balconies and windows (called rawashin) – are ornate and beautiful.
Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair due to neglect, but there is a plan within Saudi Arabia’s “Saudi Vision 2030” to purchase the entire Historic Jeddah area and restore it within the next five years.
Our guide pointed out the unique door configuration that is typical of Hejazi architecture (below). The door is referred to as a “peach”, with the open side supposedly having the same ratio to the entire door as a peach pit to a peach. The lintel is purposely high so that you have to step over it on purpose, thereby agreeing to the house rules. Once you have entered a Hijazi home, you have agreed to (1) sitting where you’re told, (2) eating what you are offered, and (3) obeying the master of the house’s wishes. Our guide cautioned us that the latter condition applied “even if they’re crazy”. He compared it to entering a website and agreeing to the terms and conditions without reading them!
We were able to enter two buildings: the home of the wealthy Baeshen family with its own private mosque (the same idea as wealthy Venetians with their family chapels), and a home that has been turned into a museum, showcasing the way a multi-generational family would live.
We visited the exterior of the home where the Saudi King lived in Jeddah before moving the capital to Riyadh (my abaya picture in front of the door). While we were there, the mid-day call to prayer was issued, and we waited on the steps while shops all closed for 10 minutes to allow their owners to pray.
We also visited the exterior of the oldest mosque in Jeddah. The mosque itself has been renovated several times, but the beautiful minaret is 650 years old and still sturdy.
It was an incredibly hot 3 hours walking around, but we learned a lot, not the least of which was that Jeddah can be pronounced 3 different ways, each with its own meaning. The most common pronunciation means grandmother, and comes from the belief that Eve (grandmother of Islam) is buried in Jeddah. The second pronunciation means waterfront, which certainly applies to this harbour city. The third pronunciation refers to Judah, believed to be the biblical tribe that originally settled the area. Hmm.
Our evening excursion was called “Desert Safari at Sunset”, and was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. I’m going to leave writing about it until tomorrow, by which time we’ll have some perspective, and maybe even find it a bit funny. Probably not, but I did get to ride a camel.