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  • A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by Ulrike Freitag
  • Benjamin James Reilly
A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. By ulrike freitag. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 391 pp. ISBN-10: 978-1108478793. $44.99 (hardcover); $36.00 (e-book).

Although Jeddah has endured for nearly fourteen centuries and boasts four million modern inhabitants, surprisingly little has heretofore been published in English on this important Arabian city. In the past, readers seeking historical information about Arabia's second-largest metropolis had nothing to go on other than a couple of coffee-table picture books produced in the 1980s and tangential references to [End Page 320] Jeddah in work by William Ochsenwald and a handful of other scholars. As a result, Ulrike Freitag's new book on the history of Jeddah fills a significant void in the scholarly literature on the Arabian Peninsula.

In some ways, Freitag's history of Jeddah is an intimate book, a "biography" of Jeddah as much as a history of the city. Drawing information from personal interviews, local family histories, letter archives, and other sources, Freitag follows the fortunes of specific Jeddawi families over time. In the process, she consistently refers back to two overarching themes that she believes will help readers better understand Jeddah's historical character. One is the concept of "Jeddah ghayr," Jeddah's cosmopolitan distinctiveness, the product of Jeddah's long and intimate contacts with the wider Islamic world. Jeddah also differs from other Arabian cities insofar as it was the traditional gateway to the pilgrimage city of Mecca. Freitag understands Jeddah through the metaphor of the dihlīz or the entrance-hall of am Arab house: a liminal space between the outside world and the private quarters reserved for the family. Freitag goes so far as to suggest that Jeddah's role as Mecca's dihlīz may explain why Jeddah has not received its due attention from scholars, who have unduly focused on the ultimate destination of pilgrims and dismissed Jeddah as a mere stepping stone along the way.

At the same time, Freitag situates her local history of Jeddah within larger territorial frameworks, creating (in her words) a "global microhistory." Freitag repeatedly discusses Jeddah's place among the urban centers of the Ottoman Empire and compares developments with Jeddah to contemporary trends in Istanbul, Damascus, Izmir, Beirut, and other Ottoman cities. In addition, Freitag contends that Jeddah's history cannot be told without reference to the wider Indian Ocean world. Drawing from Sebastian Prange's work on "monsoon Islam," Freitag argues that Jeddah's position as the northwestern endpoint of the Indian Ocean monsoon system was crucial to Jeddah's development. Jeddah was also strongly influenced by its inclusion into local, medium-scale territorial entities, including the Red Sea basin (which linked it to the Horn of Africa and Egypt) and Arabia's Hijaz region and its large Bedouin population. The result was a Jedawwi population that, even by Indian Ocean standards, was flamboyantly cosmopolitan—though Freitag prefers the term "conviviality" over cosmopolitan, since the latter term has acquired negative connotations in the modern Saudi age of Wahhabi religious sensibilities and rising Arab nationalism.

In the process of exploring these overarching themes, Freitag presents her readers with a wealth of information about diverse aspects of Jeddah's history, including urban development, economic life, social [End Page 321] hierarchy, local government, demographic changes over time, religious movements, the Hajj pilgrimage, and the rising European presence in the Red Sea. As a result of this mass of information, A History of Jeddah might prove hard going for a general reader. However, I anticipate that specialists in numerous historical sub-fields, including Indian Ocean history, Ottoman history, urban history, Islamic slavery, and the history of migration, will find Freitag's book to be useful from a comparative perspective.

While the breadth of issues that Freitag covers is impressive, the temporal focus of the book is quite narrow. Freitag focuses her study on the last two centuries, particularly the period from 1840, when the Ottomans regained control of Jeddah from the Egyptians, and 1947, when the...

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