Mecca: Where pilgrims brave the crowds and scorching heat

One can drive without the headlights on the highways connecting towns in Saudi Arabia. Mine was a journey to Mecca, 73 km east of Jeddah. Jeddah is the nearest town to Mecca with a large airport, because it is has few mountains surrounding it.

Mecca’s terrain is rugged and rocky (predominantly granite), with mountain ranges on the east, west and south which make flying a challenge.

From Jeddah, we went to Mecca in air-conditioned buses. Before modern transportation, travellers arrived in caravans of camels, braving the extreme heat.

Mecca is a modern city whose development is related to the religious function it plays for the global Muslim community.

The grand mosque Al-Haram is located in the heart of Mecca. Inside the mosque are the Holy Kaa’ba and the Zamzam Well, which never dries in spite of the desert heat.

I visited the Kaa’ba Museum, and a local factory that makes Kaa’ba Kiswa (drapes).  

Owing to the high numbers of pilgrims going to Mecca every year, the Saudi government is expanding the mosque. The project includes over 60,000 square metres of prayer area on an enlarged roof, in addition to 86,000 square metres in the surrounding plaza.

A large artist’s impression of the renovated mosque is displayed on a glass table. It is estimated that more than $23 billion will be invested to expand and renovate the mosque. Our guide said that a quarter of the work has been completed so far.

Further inside the museum, old items are on display. Ideally, the items are those that were used to build the Kaa’ba or were kept inside it. There is the old rocky pillar, a wooden base, lock and key, a wooden box, a view of the present day Kaa’ba door, the frame of the black stone, and a fabricated machine that is being used to weave Kaa’ba coverings material.

The Kaa’ba contains a black stone believed to have been given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel. In the pre-Islamic times, the Kaa’ba housed idols that the pagans worshiped.

Next to the museum is a factory that produces drapes. Entry was on condition that we did not talk to, or go close to the men working in there.

Designers make embroidery on the Kiswah from pure natural silk, which is dyed black. The sentences “La Ilahi Ila Allah, Mohammedan Rasool Allah”, “Allah Jala Jalalh”, “Subhan Allah wa bihamdihi”, “Subhan Allah Al Azeem”, “Ya hannan”, “Ya Mannan” are embroidered on the black silk in thread of gold. It takes nine months to complete the writings.

Mecca’s economy is dependent the flow of pilgrims. The hospitality and transport sectors create employment for security officers, immigration officials and hotel workers.

Every year Muslims go on pilgrimage for two major religious rituals: Haj and Umra. Haj is the fifth pillar of Islam that it is obligatory for financially able persons to perform at least once in their life time.

Haj is performed within the first 10 days of the last month of the Islamic calendar. The logistics of handling the large number of pilgrims are very demanding. Security is high, including at the Holy Kaa’ba.

There are escalators alongside fixed stairways and special provisions for people with disabilities. At least three million pilgrims visit Mecca during Haj. In the month of Ramadan, some 10 million pilgrims go to the city, and Umra attracts about 14 million pilgrims in a year.

Afraid to lose each other in the crowd, some pilgrims dress in identical scarves, others hold their national flags, some hold onto each other’s hands or around the waist.

“Let us go down and perhaps we will be able to see the King Abdullah Aziz gate,” suggested my brother Ramadhan. We got to the basement, after wandering around for about 2km, where we were to converge as a group. 

Several tunnels have been dug to make access to the mosque easier, and to reduce traffic build-up during the pilgrimage seasons.

I liked the experience of riding through the tunnels and emerging to join other roads. Walking is easier after sunset when the heat is not too bad. I did not see anybody walking around during the day, apart from the few near Haram Mosque. 

Several pilgrims take a nap on the well-polished floor tiles made of heat-resistant marble. The entire area is cooled by large air conditioning units.

I met a 55-year-old woman on a wheelchair. “My legs hurt. I walked together with my husband through the tunnel but we lost our way and we went further away from the mosque. He hired a wheelchair for me because I could not walk any longer,” she said.

It turned out that we would be sharing a room. Together with another roommate, we offered to massage her legs.

“I will tell my children to perform Haj while they are still young and energetic. This place is not confortable for old people like me,” she said.