- For other places with the same name, see Mecca (disambiguation).
Once a dusty desert town, Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, is today the real Mecca for Muslims. Other than being the foremost place of pilgrimage for Muslims worldwide, it is the cultural capital of the Islamic world and a true melting pot of worldwide Muslims. Mecca or Makkah, the holiest city in Islam, is the place where the Prophet Muhammad was born and raised, and is believed by Muslims to have received the first revelations of the Quran. And this is where the Kaaba is — in the centre of Islam's most sacred mosque, Masjid al-Haram, which is the direction that all Muslims from all over the world face when performing Islamic ritualistic prayer (salat). Masjid al-Haram or The Grand and the Sacred Mosque, the largest mosque in the world, is visited by millions of Muslims throughout the year, especially during the last month of the Islamic calendar, to perform Hajj, the pilgrimage which is a mandatory religious duty for every Muslim who can afford it.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, is one of the Five Pillars of Sunni Islam and one of the ten Branches of Religion in Shi'a Islam, and thus obligatory for all Muslims with the physical and financial ability to make it. Over three million Muslims visit the city during the month of Dhu'l-Hijjah yearly. Visits outside this month are known as minor pilgrimages or Umrah, which are not compulsory but are strongly encouraged.
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 (which, however, do have their own impressiveness). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 until midnight at 12.
Local buses, taxis, and micro-buses are widely available in Mecca and are inexpensive. The 18 km (11 mi) Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro opened in November 2010. A total of 5 metro lines are planned to carry pilgrims to the religious sites.
Destruction of historic buildings
While Mecca is certainly a holy and historical city which would warrant plenty of historical and cultural buildings, unfortunately Mecca has lost most of its heritage in recent years. Many buildings dating back to the period of Muhammad have been deliberately demolished since most of the Arabian Peninsula was politically unified in 1932 by the Saud family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The monarchs of the Saudi state are quite hostile to paying homage to tombs and similar buildings and oppose to making such buildings a pilgrimage site. Another known reason for destruction has been for the construction of hotels and apartments. By some estimates, about 95% of historical buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished since 1985.
- 1 Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque). The holiest site in Mecca and Islam is Grand Mosque. The massive mosque is the world's largest mosque and can accommodate up to 2 million people at once. The mosque has been continuously expanded and still going through major expansion and renovation. This mosque is the focal point of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.
- Kaaba. At the center of the grand mosque is the Kaaba, which according to Muslim traditions was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son, the Prophet Ishmael. Covered in black cloth, it is circled seven times by Muslim pilgrims and it is toward the Kaaba that Muslims face in the direction while performing Islamic prayers (Salat). The Black Stone set intact into the Kaaba's eastern cornerstone wall by Muhammad himself is an Islamic relic which, according to Muslim tradition, dates back to the time of Adam and Eve. Many Muslim pilgrims while doing Tawaf try to kiss and touch the sacred stone; however, this usually requires a lot of effort because of crowding.
- Maqaam-e-Ibrahim. 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.
- Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. These were the two small hills now well transformed into long galleries which are well-constructed with marble floor and equipped with air-conditions. Muslim traditions held that Hagar, wife of Abraham, ran back and forth between these two hills in search of water of her son Ismail. It is believed that she first climbed the hill of Al-Safa and later Al-Marwah. Today Muslim perform ritual walking here called Sa'ee involves walking between the two hills seven times. Each trip requires approximately 300m of walking and roughly 2.1km in total.
- 2 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 270m 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 1,405m high mountan to see the cave.
- 3 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.
- 4 Abraj Al Bait (Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel) (next to Grand Mosque). This 601m 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 house a five star hotel, a large prayer area capable of accommodating 10,000 people, a 5-story grand shopping mall, and numerous eateries.
- 5 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.
- Hike the Mountains of Mecca
- Visit Ghar Hira, where the first verse of the Quran was revealed to the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
- Pray and read the Quran in the Masjid al Haram, of course if you're Muslim.
- Shopping in the city is widely available. Bargaining is always an option when shopping locally.
While in Mecca, many pilgrims purchase trinkets to remember their time and souvenirs to bring back to family and friends. Zamzam water is available free. It is consumed in Mecca and brought home as a souvenir.
Other items to buy in and around Mecca are: Prayer mats and hats, prayer beads and perfume.
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.
There is an Al-Baik Restaurant adjacent to the Sacred Mosque.
Zamzam Water- holy water from the Zamzam spring in Masjid al Haram 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.
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), ☎ . 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, ☎ . The height of luxury inside the city walls.
Despite strict crowd control measures, overcrowding and stampedes are major hazards during the month of the Hajj, killing dozens of people. Mina, Jamrat and the bridges leading to them are known to be particularly dangerous, although steps have been taken to alleviate this: there are now four parallel bridges and the route is now unidirectional.
During the Hajj, pickpockets are not uncommon. Avoid having any valuables on your person when traversing through the crowds. In other words, be on the safe side and don't take chances.
Most pilgrims also visit Medina, Islam's second holiest city.