A religious experience in Saudi Arabia

With Haj next month, the Hijaz area of Saudi Arabia has much to offer, from spiritual trips to dawdles in old alleys.

Dawn at the Grand Mosque, also known as Al Masjid Al Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to the city every year during Haj and for the minor pilgrimage of Umrah. Getty Images
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I'm pleasantly surprised when I step out of my car – wearing only socks – onto the marble floor in Mecca on a late July night. The floor is atypically cool for this time of year, as is the temperature, luckily for the pilgrims strewn across the courtyard in front of the Grand Mosque, waiting for the call to morning prayer.

Not everyone has the privilege of being dropped off right in front of the mosque. Thanks to a large-scale urbanisation initiative in the immediate surrounding area, which has rather narrow streets, and the huge influx of pilgrims, many roads in front of the mosque have been permanently cordoned off.

Flocks of pilgrims make their way downhill to the mosque in big groups from nearby hotels perched on mountains. In the distance, I see a congregation of Iranian pilgrims in flower-­printed chadors – one-piece covers from the head down – and a group of Indonesian pilgrims with identical signs on their backs branding their agency heading to the mosque for either night prayers or the non-obligatory ­pilgrimage (Umrah).

The street vendors who cajole pilgrims visiting from all over the planet into buying small bottles of Arabian perfume or spiritual trinkets as souvenirs are nowhere to be seen. They’re eating before the sun comes up, a police officer tells me.

Everything, nevertheless, is pretty much the same since the last time I visited. Cranes dot the landscape wherever I look, towering over thousands of pilgrims circumambulating the House of God in time for morning prayer. There may even be more cranes than last time I came.

Much to my discontent, the urban expansion of this hugely in-demand city is going on at warp speed. Seemingly, there’s no way to retain the city’s primitive character, given the millions of pilgrims who travel to the city annually. There are new hotels and eateries in the immediate vicinity. The hotels overlooking the mosque are finished, with wooden shutters outside their windows to maintain a vintage appearance alongside the elegant marble.

Thanks to Mecca being a melting pot of ethnicities – many pilgrims, whether from Africa, Central Asia, the Far East or Turkey, stayed behind centuries ago – I can buy almost any type of food or ethnic clothing imaginable from the shops behind the hotels, from Turkish delight or gold to coloured African cloth or black cloaks. The narrow, uphill streets are bustling with buyers seeking ­bargains.

Entering the mosque on any day is no easy task, let alone during Ramadan or Haj. As I walk into the first part of the mosque – the multistorey prayer area encircling the House of God – I see several pilgrims asleep on the prayer carpets, using half of the spreads to cover themselves. From where I’m standing, I can see thousands of white-cloth-clad men and abaya-wearing women circulating in the same direction on the ground floor, the circular suspension around the Kaaba and balcony overlooking the Kaaba. The lucky few who get to do their Umrah rounds on the ground floor are wrestling their way to one of the corners of the Kaaba to kiss the grey stone that, legend has it, dates back to Adam and Eve, and stands out among the black cloth that covers the house.

The lanes between the Safa and Marwa mounts, where Hajar, the wife of Prophet Abraham, was said to have run frantically in search of water for her child, are less busy than the Kaaba area. By this time, I’m running through crowds of pilgrims, some of whom have children wrapped onto their bodies, others charging wheelchairs through the crowd to get their seven ­Umrah laps done before morning prayers. The mounts themselves have been subsumed by the mosque marble, emanating from the ground at the end of each lane. The call to prayer bellows as I walk, and everyone suddenly stops and prays in the middle of the lanes that usually house swarms of bustling worshippers.

By the time I make it out of the Grand Mosque, pigeons have arrived at the courtyard to greet sunrise. A team of Asian cleaners with marble wipers form a diagonal line, ushering water being dispensed from a mobile machine in synchrony, cleaning the vast area of date pits and Zamzam water cups.

Medina, the Prophet Mohamed’s resting place, hosts a similar scene. I can see thousands of white-clad worshippers performing night prayers from the window of my mosque-view room at the Dar Al Iman InterContinental. I go down just before dawn to make it to the Prophet’s grave area, known as Paradise Corner, during female visiting hours. The green-and-silver domes that distinguish the majestic, marble-laden mosque shimmer as the sun comes up. Swarms of pilgrims push their way through to the shrine, which, shielded by a silver barrier, is barely visible from the top. The Prophet’s pulpit can also be partially seen. The area is so crowded that guards stand on pedestals hanging on to ropes tied to pillars to stay afloat of the sea of people. Tear-stained faces of people prostrate on the green carpet stretch as far back as I can see.

Unlike Mecca, though, pilgrims are making the rounds on historical sites outside the mosque. The Baqi graveyard, home to Islam’s most famous martyrs, has no tombs, but still has signposts with invocations for the dead in six different languages.

Many cling on to the wired fence that encloses the graves, routinely being ushered away by locals who view this as an abomination. Though Islam’s most famous battlefields are now obsolete, many Iranian pilgrims are making their way up a mountain to a shabby, open-air mosque said to belong to the Prophet’s cousin, Ali. Though tiny, the mosque still offers a modest view, decorated with coloured carpets across its dilapidated floor.

In Jeddah, popularly known as the “gate to Mecca”, I visit the old city during Ramadan. I enter through an old castle entrance illuminated in green, greeted by tour guides donning traditional head wraps specific to the city’s culture. Old white houses with green, blue, pink and brown shutters overlook the main square, where TV personalities are giving interviews in a makeshift glass room. I’m told by one tour guide that the area dates back to the 1700s. I’m led to a distinct building with light-blue shutters that housed the first American consulate in the city.

Below the old house, locals are selling traditional food – dumplings, yogurt drinks, an Arabian pulse known as termos – while rapping in their dialect to get visitors’ attention.

I then come across the second square, a makeshift bazaar where families sell jewellery and traditional clothing. An array of different coloured shutters also overlook this square, along with pine trees and tree prints on one wall.

The shutters, the guide tells me, were designed to allow an abundant flow of air through the vents, while shielding dwellers from being seen by neighbours, in conformity with local culture.

Many of the dilapidated buildings belonging to prominent families have been renovated and the alleyways between the wooden-shuttered houses cleaned up since the last time I visited. The lanes are dotted with food kiosks and lamps whichever way you walk. One house belonging to a rich family boasts an intricately carved, dark-wood door. Across from the door, I see an old ladies’ home that, I’m told, was opened thanks to family donations.

On the other side is a rare scene in the city: an open-air art gallery. Women covered head-to-toe sit on wooden chairs, painting out in the open. Portraits of the late Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faisal dot the alleyway. There’s also an indoor gallery sporting paintings of old regional cities.

Farther down, we find a bakery opened by three sisters whose father had died. Bread made from a type of gluten-free wheat, known locally as dukhon, is on sale. The local mosque nearby has been fully renovated, and attracts impressive gasps from visitors who had seen its state before it was ­revamped.

Though there’s a seawater lagoon in front of the old town and the downtown area, the city’s ­waterfront – which boasts five-star hotels, some distinctly Oriental in structure – is a short drive away. The public corniche, which sports the highest water fountain of its kind in the world, has recently been renovated to make it more user-friendly for visitors walking along the coast, but there’s no public beach for swimming because of dress-code restrictions. Here, there are also kiosks selling Arabic pulses and warm sweetcorn. The area has undergone massive renovation since the last time I visited, and I note newly restored sculptures, such as a three-piece reclining figure made by Henry Moore.

Getting around is neither easy nor fun, and the rest of the fascinating art we see is scattered over vast stretches of the coastline in a fragmented, not-so-tourist-friendly way.

The roundabouts along the way offer their fair share of sculptures, though they’re hard to take in at first through the highways and traffic. Kite-flyers, families having picnics and more kiosks dot the humid coastline.

By contrast, much of the seaside outside of Jeddah, in Obhur, is full of private beach houses and resorts with yearly memberships, making it inaccessible to one-time tourists. The Red Sea reefs on the Saudi side have a reputation as being some of the best in the world, so I join a group of friends to head out to sea. Tours are hard to come by, but boats can be rented at the Marsa Al Ahlam port. We spend an hour on board before reaching a turquoise lagoon. This far out, only one boat passes while we’re there. We jump in for a snorkel around the coral, and see colourful fish species that only exist on this side of the Red Sea.

Experiences such as these prove that though Saudi Arabia isn’t a typical tourist destination, the country has much to offer, much of which simply can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.


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