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Travel Guide Middle East Saudi Arabia Mecca

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Introduction

Mecca is the holiest city of the Islam religion and is located in the west of Saudi Arabia. With a population of 1.7 million people it is also one of the biggest cities in the country. Every year around 3 million Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and more than 13 million people visit Mecca annually.

Non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering the city of Mecca. Road signs to guide non-Muslims are provided. The minimum penalty is deportation from the country. Documentation will be checked upon entry and anyone not showing proof of being Muslim will be refused entry. As a solitary exception, the Mecca bus terminal (outside city limits) is open to all.

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Sights and Activities

Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām

The Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām ("The Sacred Mosque") is the biggest mosque in the world, and is built around the Kabaa. This is the place where muslims turn to for their daily prayers. During the Hajj the combined indoor and outdoor area of the mosque can hold up to 4 million people.
Next to Kaaba is a crystal dome called Maqaam-e-Ibrahim, which contains a rock that is believed to have an imprint of Abraham's foot. Traditions held that Abraham while constructing the high walls of Kaaba stood on the rock which miraculously rose up and let Abraham continue building.

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Events and Festivals

Hajj

The Hajj is the anual pilgrimage to Mecca, that every muslim is supposed to make at least one time in his or her lifetime. It is one of the largest anual gathering in the world, and takes place from the 7th until the 12th day of the 12th month of the Islamic calendar.

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Weather

Mecca features a hot desert climate. Like most Saudi Arabian cities, Mecca retains warm to hot temperatures even in winter, which can range from 18 °C at night to 30 °C in the afternoon. Summer temperatures are extremely hot and break the 40 °C mark in the afternoon dropping to 30 °C in the evening. Rain usually falls in Mecca in small amounts scattered between November and January.

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Getting There

By Plane

King Abdulaziz International Airport near Jeddah is the main gateway by air. There are no passenger services to the small Mecca airport.

By Car

There is an excellent modern multi-lane highway from Jeddah named Highway # 40. The distance is around 100km and the journey takes an hour. During the Hajj pilgrimage season it is jammed with buses full of pilgrims. At any other time, traffic is extremely light for the size of the road.

A few miles outside of Mecca, there is a cutoff referred to as the "Christian bypass". Turn along this highway to drive another 50 miles out of the way to reach the lovely mountain town of Taif. Taif, at 5000 feet elevation, was the former summer palace of the Saudi Kings. If you remain on the main highway, there is a police checkpoint just after the exit, where non-Muslims are kept out of the holy city.

Taxis can be hailed anywhere in Jeddah for Mecca around SR250 during normal season or about SR 500 during Hajj and winters. At Jeddah Airport, you can also share a taxi with other pilgrims if you want to which would half the trip charges per person.

By Bus

SAPTCO runs services to Mecca from throughout the country, although most pilgrims when coming for Umrah or Hajj, arrive on privately chartered buses or cars from Jeddah.

There are two terminals: the main terminal outside city limits is open to all, but the city center terminal at the Haram al Sharif, used mainly by buses to Jeddah, is restricted to Muslims only. One way trip cost SR15 and trip takes 1 hour. Buses leave throughout the day after interval time of 1-2 hours starting from early in the morning at 6:00am until midnight.

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Getting Around

Local buses, taxis, and micro-buses are widely available in Mecca and are inexpensive. The 18-kilometre Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro opened in November 2010. A total of 5 metro lines are planned to carry pilgrims to the religious sites.

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Eat

There are many types of food from all over the world available in Mecca, from the Middle Eastern Arab food to Southeast Asian food. There are also American fast food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dunkin Donuts. No type of pork, ham or any part of the pig is served in Saudi Arabia as forbidden by Islamic Law.

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Drink

Zamzam Water is holy water from the Zamzam spring in Masjid al Haram and believed to be divinely blessed is preferred among pilgrims to Mecca.

There are many tea shops that serve tea and cookies. There are also many juice vendors right outside the Mosque, who sell apple, mango and strawberry juices for 1 SAR.

As this is Saudi Arabia, the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages is strictly forbidden; the local Saudis of Mecca (somewhat ironically) do have a reputation for being big drinkers in private, but don't expect to be invited to the private parties where they drink.

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Sleep

Mecca is full of hotels, from the Hilton to unknown hotels with various facilities. The price varies according to the hotel's distance from the Holy Mosque. Some of the world's greatest hotels are situated in Mecca, and are full year-round. Make sure to book early, as soon as you know your dates of travel.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet cafes abound in major Saudi cities, and many shopping malls feature a gaming parlor or two. Rates are around SR5/hour.

While Internet in Saudi Arabia is cordoned off by a filter, it aims primarily at pornography, non-Islamic religious and domestic political sites in Arabic, and (from the traveller's point of view) is nowhere near as strict as, say, China's. Google, Skype, Wikipedia, all major webmail providers etc. are all accessible.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The three mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily and Kuwaiti newcomer Zain (Vodafone Network) are fiercely competitive, with good coverage (in populated areas) and good pricing. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR 75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop (bring your passport). Local calls are under SR 0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR 2/min.

And yes, you can bring in your own phone: despite grumblings from the clerics, both camera phones and multimedia messaging (MMS) are now legal.

Post

Saudi Post has a good network of post offices around the country, but offices are closed Thursday and Friday. Stamps for postcards to anywhere in the world cost SR4. The bigger problem is actually finding postcards, as the mutawwa periodically crack down on the celebration of non-Islamic holidays like Valentine's Day, Christmas or even birthdays, causing all cards of any sort to disappear from bookstores! Your best bet is thus gift shops in major hotels. Mail coming in to the country from overseas is notoriously unreliable. Stories abound of things arriving months after they were sent or never arriving at all. There are branches of DHL, FedEx and UPS operating throughout the kingdom, so a good rule of thumb is to have anything important sent through those channels.

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Contributors

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This is version 7. Last edited at 9:16 on Aug 4, 17 by Utrecht. 4 articles link to this page.

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