Mecca

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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History

Muslims believe that the history of Mecca goes back to Abraham (Ibrahim) who built the Kaaba with the help of his eldest son Ishmael around 2000 BCE. In 570 CE, Muhammad was born in Mecca. Since those days, Mecca's history and identity has been inextricably linked with Islam.

According to Muslim traditions, in 610, it was in Mecca (inside the Hira cave on the mountain of Jabal al-Nour) where Muhammad the age of 40 received his first revelation from Allah, through the Angel Gabriel. Muhammad then begin preaching. In 622, Muhammad left Mecca for Yathrib (now called Medina) for fear of being assassinated by the local Quraysh ruling clan, who had declined to accept Muhammad and his beliefs and started persecuting followers of Islam. As Muhammad migrated to Medina and settled there, several armed conflicts followed between followers of Muhammad and local tribes of Mecca, particularly one during which the followers of Muhammad attempted to return to Mecca in 628 for pilgrimage but weren't allowed to enter the city. A peace treaty was eventually signed that allowed followers of Muhammad to return to Mecca. In 629, Muhammad along with thousands of his followers migrated back to Mecca from Medina (where he had lived for 13 years) for a Hajj, known as the first pilgrimage. According to Muslims, the peace treaty was to also include ceasefire for 10 years but after 2 years, the Quraysh violated the truce by slaughtering a group of Muslims. Muhammad and his followers, companions and allies now much stronger in number, so instead of fighting back, they simply marched across the city of Mecca and thereby triggered the surrender of the Quraysh of Mecca. Eventually, Muhammad Islamicized the city and made it the center of Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Mecca has been ruled by various dynasties over the last 1500 years. Starting in 1517 CE, with only one short interruption, Mecca and the rest of the Hejaz were under the control and stewardship of the Ottoman Turks and — since the 10th century — the local religious and temporal leadership of the Hashemite Emirs, who were relocated by the British to serve as the rulers of Transjordan and Iraq in the aftermath of the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. In 1924, Mecca was conquered by the Saud family of modern-day Saudi Arabia following a short battle.

During the Hajj season in 1979, hundreds of extremist insurgents seized the Grand Mosque and called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family and their government who, according to them, were not pure Muslims. The siege lasted two weeks, until the armed forces of Pakistan and France intervened to assist the Saudi authorities.

There has been considerable non-violent dissension between the Saudis and others over their destruction of numerous historic buildings in Mecca, including a diplomatic protest from Turkey over the demolition in 2002 of a centuries-old Ottoman fort, to make way for the Abraj Al Bait Towers. The Saudis operate under a very strictly iconoclastic interpretation of Islam (Salafism, also called Wahhabism by many non-Salafists), and they prefer to demolish the home of any honored figure in Islam, including the Prophet Muhammad's birth house which also stood in Mecca until recently, to prevent people from making pilgrimages to pay their respects at these houses, an action which the Saud family and local religious authorities consider tantamount to idolatry.

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Sights and Activities

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.
Cave of Hira (Ghaar-e-Hira), Jabal Al Noor (3 kilometres from Mecca). The cave of Hira is an important site, since atop the mountain locally known as Jabal Al Noor is where Muslims believe Muhammed first had the Quran revealed to him from Allah through the angel Jebril. Pilgrims often climb the cave which stood at a height of 270 m to see the place where Muhammad is believed to have received the first revelation of the Quran.
Cave Thawr (Ghaar-e-Thawr), Jabal Thawr. This is the cave in which Prophet Muhammed hid in as he made departure to Yathrib (now Medina) from Mecca while being pursued by Quraish of Mecca who were planning to harm him. According to traditions, once Muhammad and his companion made entrance into the cave, the entrance was blocked by a spider which had cast a web to cover it and gave the impression to members of Quraish that no one has made entrance inside the cave since a long time thus saved life of Muhammad. Today, many pilgrims climb up the 1,405 m high mountan to see the cave.
Jannat al-Mu'alla. This is the cemetery in which companions and relatives of Prophet Muhammed are buried, including his first wife, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great-grandfather.
Al-Haramain Museum (متحف الحرم شریف). This museum has a lot of historical artifacts from different eras.
Abraj Al Bait (Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel) (next to Grand Mosque). This 601 m megatall building has become a modern symbol of Mecca. It is the third tallest building in the world and incorporates the world's largest clock face. The building houses a five star hotel, a large prayer area capable of accommodating 10,000 people, a 5-story grand shopping mall, and numerous eateries.
Mina. Mina is a neighborhood of Mecca. It has the nick name of Tent City, as there are hundred of thousands of air-conditioned tents in the area, which act as temporary accommodations for pilgrims during Hajj time. The pedestrian-only Jamaraat Bridge, where the symbolic ritual of Stoning of the Devil is done, is located here.
Hill of Arafat (Jabal Rahma). 70m (230 ft) high Hill of Arafat is a granite hill in the outskirts of Mecca is the site where Prophet Muhammad stood and delivered the Farewell Sermon to the Muslims during the last day of his life. During Hajj, pilgrims spend the whole day on and around this hill doing prayers.

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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.

Milad al-Nabi

All Saudi Muslims celebrate the birthday of their Prophet, Mohammad, by elaborately decorating their homes and mosques. Children recite poems about the Prophet, while older Saudis tell stories about Mohammad’s life and accomplishments. Large feasts and street processions are among Milad al-Nabi’s other traditional activities. The date of Milad al-Nabi varies from year to year according to the Islamic calendar.

Unification of the Kingdom Day

The country’s only secular public holiday takes place each September 23 on the anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s 1932 founding. Although many Saudis still choose to quietly celebrate this formerly low-key holiday at home, growing numbers of young Saudis have chosen to express their national pride more overtly by singing, dancing, honking car horns, and waving Saudi flags.

Eid ul-Fitr

Like their Muslim counterparts in other nations, Saudis mark the final day of the fasting month of Ramadan with this three-day religious festival. Eid ul-Fitr begins with a small morning meal and quiet prayers, and continues with larger feasts and livelier celebrations among family and friends. Saudi children receive money and elaborately decorated gift bags from adults, several shopkeepers add free gifts to all purchases, and Saudi men secretly leave large bags of food on strangers’ doorsteps during this festive time of year.

Eid al-Adha

This important Muslim festival lasts four days and marks the moment when Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice Ismael, his son, for Allah. Today, most Saudi families celebrate Eid al-Adha by dressing up in their finest clothing, saying special prayers, and slaughtering lambs to share their meat with everyone.

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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

Unless you're a national of Saudi Arabia or neighbouring GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates), everyone requires visa to enter Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic missions of Saudi Arabia issue special visas for those making the pilgrimage to Mecca, either Hajj or Umrah. Most pilgrims opt to use a specialist travel agency, which will handle the considerable paperwork for them. As usual in Saudi Arabia, women must travel together with a male guardian (Mahram), unless they are over 45, travelling with a group and have their guardian's signed consent.

Hajj visas are allocated on a quota system, based on the number of Muslims in a country. In some cases, those who have previously done Hajj have had additional restrictions placed on their next Hajj, in an effort to discourage overcrowding while still accommodating those who have not yet made the pilgrimage. Umrah visas can be obtained at any time of the year except during the Hajj season. If the applicant is not a national of a Muslim-majority country or was not born a Muslim, s/he must present a certificate notarized by an Islamic center testifying that s/he is a Muslim. Usually, your mosque will be able to arrange this or at least point the way.

By Plane

King Abdulaziz International Airport near Jeddah is the main gateway by air. All regional airlines serve the airport throughout the year. The same airport can be used when coming for Umrah.

The Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport is used only during the Hajj season, and is served mostly by charter flights arranged by regional commercial airliners, although there are some scheduled services as well.

Another option is Ta’if Regional Airport in Taif which can also be used to get into Mecca; however only a few airlines operate here, particularly those of neighboring Gulf countries.

By Train

The new Haramain high-speed railway links Mecca with Medina via King Abdulaziz International Airport, King Abdullah Economic City and Jeddah, eight times per day. Service is expected to be increased to 12 daily departures in 2019. Travel time from Jeddah is less then 30 minutes while the whole journey from Medina will take just under two hours. Mecca railway station is located along the 3rd ring road, near Rusaiyfah.

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 Taxi

Taxis can be hailed anywhere in Jeddah for Mecca around SR250 during normal season or about SR500 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.

Dar Al Tawhid Makkah (The Inter-Continental), Ibrahim Al Khalis St (Just Outside of Mecca), ☏ +966-2-541-1111. Luxury right outside The Holy City. The hotel is beautiful with views of Mecca. Staff speaks Arabic, English, French, Hindi, Indonesian and Punjabi.
Hotel Elaf Al Huda. Simple rooms with air-conditioning only 15 min walk from the Haram. They also provide a shuttle to the Haram. starting at $105.
Inter-Continental Mekkah, Old Jeddah Rd, ☏ +966-2-560-1000. The height of luxury inside the city walls.
Raffles Makkah Palace.

View our map of accommodation in Mecca

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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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Accommodation in Mecca

We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Mecca searchable right here on Travellerspoint.

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This is version 10. Last edited at 14:27 on Oct 1, 19 by Utrecht. 4 articles link to this page.

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