Hi All. Yes I’m very excited today because Tim Blight has given me this amazing guest post about his visit to Makkah in Saudi-Arabia. I think for many we can’t image the Islamic pilgrimage to their holiest city, and today Tim reveals a little about just what it is like. This is also, I think, the first post on this blog about Saudi-Arabia! Enjoy!
Its name is synonymous with throngs of people, yet so many have never been there. For a place which is the centre of the universe for so many humans, it’s remarkably mysterious to outsiders. I am, of course, talking about Makkah, perhaps better known as Mecca; the holiest city in Islam.
I was fortunate enough to visit Makkah in March 2019 on my umrah (pilgrimage), and was taken around by a dear friend who lives locally.
To be completely honest I wasn’t sure what to expect aside from a lot of religious devotion; as someone who writes a travel blog with a focus on city lifestyles, I had barely considered Makkah as a city outside of the Grand Mosque and Holy Kaa’ba. As such it was a city experience unlike any other – totally unexpected and absolutely intriguing.
Makkah is a big metropolis, and it is a Mecca for everyone. As a city supporting an annual pilgrimage of millions, and ongoing (almost year-round) arrivals for the umrah, Makkah is suitably equipped with the facilities required to host the throngs of people. The millions need places to stay, and so they exist – imagine a tourist town on steroids. Thousands of hotels, from the uber-luxurious through to the simple, hostel types, dot the cityscape. Entire streets are given over to rows and rows of low and high rise towers hosting the faithful. There are also the countless eateries, too – serving up almost every kind of cuisine to cater to the arrivals.
Of course, all of these facilities require staff, and such constant commercial activity means Makkah is also a centre of trade and business. As such, the city’s population has exploded to over two million registered inhabitants, and possibly more who live there on a temporary basis. That makes it the third biggest city in Saudi Arabia, and home to office towers and business centres too. It’s also incredibly cosmopolitan – something seemingly at odds with its reputation as a conservative bastion of Muslim civilisation. This is due to the continual influx of pilgrims from all corners of the earth; the city has witnessed and absorbed more social variety than most.
Surprisingly, Makkah is not in the desert. It is situated in a rocky, barren valley in the mountainous Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia. As you drive around Makkah the roads twist and turn, avoiding or sometimes tunnelling straight through startling rocky outcrops which emerge from within otherwise nondescript suburbs. The Grand Mosque is at the heart of the city, but there are other sites strewn all around the valley. One such site is the Hira Cave, a mountaintop nook where it is said the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) began to receive the first of his revelations which would be known as the Qur’an.
Up in the surrounding hills there is the Exhibition of the Two Holy Mosques Architecture, a museum displaying relics from the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, in Madinah. In the next valley over from the Grand Mosque is the huge tent city which hosts Hajj pilgrims on their ritual night “under the stars”, and the Mount of Arafat, a small peak which features in both Christian and Muslim theology.
However most surprising of all, Makkah is modern. Far from being the ancient casbah that many imagine, the city is constantly being modernised, improved and upgraded. Millions of pilgrims demand logistical solutions, and so there is a metro line, massive glitzy shopping malls, expansive motorways, similarly-sized pedestrian beltways and tunnels and bridges every which way.
Perhaps this is what is least appreciated about Makkah, particularly by outsiders; the infrastructure and continual logistical effort that keeps the city open and functioning smoothly 24/7. While the spectacle and piety of the mosque and its visitors is the most sublime and indelible image of any trip to Makkah, it’s the organisation of it all that also left me awestruck.
So much of Makkah is based around and wrapped up in the overarching religious significance of the city – as it should be. However Makkah doesn’t have a whole lot of non-religious “tourist attractions”, and as such the story that outsiders hear is one of the Grand Mosque and nothing more. This is something of a disservice, though, because while Makkah is unrivalled in the Muslim world in terms of sanctity, it is one amazing city apart from that too.
A HUGE thanks to Tim today for his amazing post. Please do check out his blog at urbanduniya.com and his Youtube Channel at Urban Duniya. Thank YOU for reading today and please do comment! Take care wherever you may be – and May the Journey Never End!