JEDDAH: For centuries, Hajj has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the millions of Muslims who travel to the Holy City of Makkah. In days gone by the journey was often arduous. But weary pilgrims arriving in Jeddah, for many their first port of call, have always found comfort and friendship thanks to the famed hospitality of the city’s residents.
The port city on the Red Sea coast has been inextricably linked with Hajj and Umrah for more than 1,300 years. In 674, Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, a companion of the Prophet, designated the city as a gateway for pilgrims traveling to Makkah and Madinah.
It has continued to serve this noble purpose ever since, latterly under the careful stewardship of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which works tirelessly to facilitate the movement, accommodation and comfort of pilgrims on their journeys to Makkah, 40 miles to the east of Jeddah, and Madinah, 220 miles to the north.
This gateway to two of the holiest cities in Islam has provided generations of Muslims from all corners of the Earth with food and lodgings on their journey to perform the sacred pilgrimage. But the city offers so much more than shelter and sustenance. Pilgrims have traditionally been greeted with profoundly touching displays of hospitality, solidarity and friendship — a proud tradition among Jeddawis that continues to this day.
Families in Madinah are often referred to as “Muzawareen” — which comes from the Arabic word “zeyara,” meaning “visit” — denoting their inherited duty to take into their homes pilgrims visiting the mosque and the grave of the Prophet.
Families in Makkah are often called “Mutawefeen,” which is derived from “tawaf,” one of the rituals during Hajj and Umrah. Again, this denotes their traditional role in guiding visitors.
By the same token, Jeddawis are often known as “Wukalaa” in recognition of the assistance they provided as agents to the pilgrims who arrived there by sea.
In the old days, large ships carrying the pilgrims would anchor in deeper waters off the Red Sea coast, and the travelers would be brought ashore by locals on smaller wooden sambouks and dhows. There they were greeted by their designated agents, who would show them to their lodgings.
Ahmed Badeeb, a local historian and longtime resident of Jeddah’s historic old city, said that this special bond between the people of the city and visiting pilgrims not only shaped its urban geography but its entire way of life.
“Pilgrims arriving by land were very few,” he told Arab News. “Large ships would bring Hajj pilgrims from all over and there were no hotels in Jeddah.
“The people of the city would provide lodgings for pilgrims in their own homes and the pilgrim would become part of the family, establishing relationships. And when their guests returned home, they’d continue their correspondence because they felt like they had a home (there).
Homeowners would normally sleep in the mabeet, their designated sleeping quarters located on the roof of the house, and provide lodging for pilgrims in the megad (sitting room) on the ground floor.
Pilgrims’ visits for Hajj could last for up to four months, but they usually remained in Jeddah for only a few days while their agents arranged onward travel to Makkah or Madinah. Jeddah was therefore a brief pit stop on their journeys.