Mecca – Long Read

Journey to the heart of a religion

The mountain of Jabal Thawr, where these pilgrims are praying, holds a cave in which the prophet Muhammad and his father-in-law Abu Bakr sheltered from their enemies for three days and nights in 622 on their way to Medina. A wealthy merchant, Abu Bakr was the first man outside the prophet Muhammad's family to convert to Islam.

Photo by Cem Oksuz / Getty Images

Mecca – Long Read

Journey to the heart of a religion

Hello Mecca, focus every year of the five-day Hajj when millions of Muslim pilgrims travel from all over the world to visit a place that is at the center of their daily prayers. One of the Five Pillars of Islam calls on all followers who are “physically and financially able” to make the journey at least once in their life.

Brannon Wheeler
Brannon Wheeler History Professor

“Make sure you say it right or you’ll have to sacrifice a sheep,” says Abdallah, my driver and guide. He seems genuinely and visibly concerned, maybe because he expects a hassle. It will be his job to arrange the animal sacrifice required if I do not say the prayer asking God’s forgiveness should something outside of my control keep me from finishing my pilgrimage to Mecca.

For him, this is a second job. Not because he knows a lot about Mecca – I am not sure he does – but mostly because he has a nice big American car and he speaks good English. His day job is teaching English at a secondary school in Ta’if. He never does tell me anything about the history or mythology of the places we visit, or even about his own connection to the city. It is his job to drive and facilitate my pilgrimage, and he keeps his focus on making sure I do not do anything that might obligate him to extend his duties.

As a professional historian of religion, I have spent almost three decades studying Islam and have been to Saudi Arabia several times before but this is the first time I have had the opportunity to visit Mecca. It is an odd omission considering I have written so much about the city and the pilgrimage there. It is not the time for the Hajj, so I am doing the Umrah, sometimes called the “Lesser Pilgrimage”. This includes circling the Kaaba seven times, praying at the Maqam Ibrahim and walking back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times. The Hajj also includes spending a night at Mina, a day standing at Mount Arafat, sleeping at Muzdalifah, throwing stones at the pillars representing Satan, the sacrifice at Mina, and a final circling of the Kaaba.

I have been told it is important to hire a driver, not just for the car, although public transport in Mecca is no better than in other Saudi cities. My study of its history has not prepared me for the modern city nor the actual pilgrimage. I do not know what to wear and how to wear it, what to say and when, what to do and where, so Abdallah’s help is essential. The pilgrimage is not just about visiting certain places but includes wearing (or not wearing) certain types of clothing, saying specific Arabic phrases at specific times, doing rituals, and not doing a whole list of things. These include cutting nails or hair, bleeding, any sexual contact, and killing or eating wild animals, not that I see any of those on the freeway or in downtown Mecca.

Saying the same prayers brings you together

My first stop is the pilgrims’ station outside Mecca, where I don the Ihram, the garb of two white cotton wraps, representing the pure state of the pilgrim, and a pair of plastic slip-on sandals. “Wearing the white cloth makes everyone equal,” says Aisha Abdallah, originally from Mombasa in Kenya but now working at London’s Regent’s Park Mosque. “You will not know someone is a king unless he says so. Everyone speaks different languages but saying the same prayers also brings you together.”

The station has rows of shops where South Asians sell various pilgrim “kits” and specialty items such as money belts to hide your valuables. As well as the belt, I have my camera and prayer beads – Buddhist ones from the Dat San monastery in Siberia.

Although the pilgrim garb is part of the experience, it is strange to share the front of a car, wearing only a flimsy wrap, with someone who was a total stranger to me this morning. I think of Richard Burton, entering Mecca in the mid-19th century, “disguised” as a Muslim, his fear of “a blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth…” Although I see no other Westerners during my visit, I never feel uncomfortable. Mecca feels like any other modern Middle-Eastern city, just one with a massive mosque at its center.

Mecca is the birthplace of Islam, a sacred site off limits to non-Muslim visitors. Pilgrims retrace the steps of the prophet Muhammad, and still more ancient figures such as Abraham, and even Adam. But, like most of the modern Arabian Gulf, the city is constantly under construction and expanding to make way for future development. As well as the focus of a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for billions of Muslims from around the world, it is also a major tourist destination and business center, one of the main pillars of the Saudi economy. During my visit, current renovations will reduce access to more than half of the central mosque and its surroundings.

I have some romanticized notions about Mecca, based on my three decades of studying and writing about the history of Islam from medieval texts. I had always imagined, for example, that the entrance to this holy place would be like a border-crossing manned by armed guards, or that there would be some “test” to enter, like the one to enter the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But we just drive in on the freeway.

The monstrous tower dwarfs the ancient mosque

The first thing I note are large concrete signs, here and later in Medina, marking the boundaries of the “sanctuary” [haram] or protected area around the central mosque. I keep looking for the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba but instead I see only the huge clock tower in the distance and the modern city of Mecca all around me: fast food, groceries, banks, and a lot of people and cars. The Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower is the tallest clock in the world and the world’s third-tallest building. Housing numerous hotels and a 20-story mall, it is just meters away from the Grand Mosque. Building the monstrous tower, which dwarfs the ancient mosque, meant demolishing an 18th-century Ottoman fort and Saudi architect Dr. Sami Angawi calls these building projects the “commercialization of the house of God.” Later on I will appreciate his remark that when he is circling the Kaaba he does not look up because of what he will see.

Dr. Said Munir is at the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute for Hajj and Umrah Research at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. “Mecca and Medina are the two dream cities of millions of Muslims from all over the world,” he says. “The Saudi government and the Royal Family pay special attention to the well-being and development of these two cities; therefore there are no constraints on [their] development.”

The Kaaba and its mosque are in the center of the city. Surrounded by hills, the mosque is accessed by highways cut into tunnels that ease road navigation but the amount of traffic makes parking nearly impossible, especially with the ongoing construction. Once on foot, I notice how clean it everything is. A cleaning crew continually mops and disinfects the floor around and inside the mosque. Of course, they are all South Asians, as is the norm anywhere in the Gulf. Families from Indonesia or the Philippines save their whole lives to make this trip to Mecca, where economic and national differences are supposed to be effaced by the common unity of the Muslim community. Instead, they confront the steep hierarchy of Gulf society.

Abdallah tells me to carry my shoes. There really is not a good place to store them outside the mosque but clear plastic bags are provided so pilgrims can carry them without touching the bottoms. That would mean re-doing the ritual ablutions and leaving the mosque to visit one of the crowded underground bathrooms outside.

The water has been filtered, purified and cooled

Before even catching my first glimpse of the Kaaba I am confronted with another unexpected feature of the modern pilgrimage. The water from the well of Zamzam – which is within the Masjid al-Haram – is dispensed in disposable plastic cups from rows of large coolers. Not only is the well itself no longer visible but the water has been filtered, purified and cooled. I spent several years researching the history of this well, supposedly discovered first either by Eve or Abraham’s wife Hagar. It is a shock for me to find that it has now become bottled water, some marked “Souvenir from Mecca” to take home.

The well used to stand in the mosque’s central courtyard near the Kaaba and pilgrims would drink directly from it. The ninth-century Arab historian Ibn Hisham mentions that it was the prophet Muhammad’s grandfather who rediscovered it and unearthed a cache of swords and armor. Renovations in the mid- 20th century replaced the well opening with a circle of tiles marking the spot, set into the courtyard. Today even these tiles have been removed and a historical photo showing where the tiles used to be has also been defaced. The Saudis have been very careful to sanitize the pilgrimage rituals of anything that could suggest non-Islamic influence.

“There is a fear that people will go and worship remains but we also have to adapt to ongoing development,” says Aisha. “The new construction shows that Muslims are not backward people as they are often viewed and is also a necessary response to the growing demand to visit Mecca. The new buildings will help people with disabilties so they have proper access and that is a very good thing.”

The Kaaba is a large cube, taller than it is around, made out of cinder-block sized bricks covered with an embroidered black cloth called the Kiswah. It is pulled back so I can see the door of the Kaaba, high off the ground. At the Pitt-Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford I have seen fist-sized bags filled with dust from inside it. Every year at the beginning of the month of Ramadan a set of wooden stairs is wheeled up to the door and a delegation, usually led by the governor of Mecca province, goes inside to sweep and wash the Kaaba with a mixture of Zamzam water and rosewater.

Development can be a real disadvantage to pilgrims

“One thing I find more disturbing than the new development is the use of electronics such as smartphones around the Kaaba,” says Aisha. “You want everyone to see where you are but if you call someone, someone else may call you and so on and that disturbs your concentration on what you should be doing: getting closer to God. In that case, development is a real disadvantage to pilgrims.”

In the Quran, Muslims are told to “take the place of Abraham as a place of prayer” – today pilgrims pray two sets of bowings and prostrations by a stone and metal shrine that is said to be the Maqam Ibrahim. The 12th-century Iranian-Afghan scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi claims that the “place of Abraham” originally referred to all of the sacred area of Mecca. Inside the small shrine (it is about the size of a big person) is supposed to be a rock in which are the footprints of Abraham. I cannot see anything because there is now opaque glass covering the shrine. At the local museum there are photos and a replica of the rock with the footprints.

Footprints of prophets are relatively common in Islam – there is the footprint of the prophet Muhammad on the rock under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Nearby on the Mount of Olives is a footprint said to have been left by Jesus when he ascended into heaven – it is protected by a shrine built by Salah al-Din during the Crusades. And there is a footprint of the prophet Muhammad in Istanbul at the tomb of Ayyub al-Ansari – he was martyred fighting against the Byzantine Empire (maybe because he was carrying around a big rock with a footprint on it).

The last part of the visit to the mosque is the “running” between Safa and Marwa. I was really looking forward to this because of all the stories about the two hills in pre- and early Islamic times but it was not what I expected. The hills are now outcroppings of rock at either end of a 300-meter, marble-floored, air-conditioned, covered walkway. I have to go down and up a little at each end to reach the part of hills that are still visible, each one under a dome.

People are actually running and sweating

Halfway through each 300-meter walk (you do seven one-way trips, as opposed to laps, so that you end up finishing at the hill opposite the one you started on – like Abraham’s wife is supposed to have done looking for water) there are two sets of green lights. On reaching the first set of green lights you am supposed to pick up the pace – some people are actually running and sweating, trying to hold on to their two towels and not trip in their plastic sandals. At the second set of lights I can slow down back to my normal walking pace. Abdullah gives me explicit instructions to make sure I end up where he is going to be waiting, so he does not have to walk a circuit himself to find me.

The ritual finishes with cutting your hair but because of the construction I find there are no barbers in the usual place by the exit. Abdallah and I wander around looking for one, long enough for me to think that maybe he does not know Mecca all that well. But it is the construction changing things so quickly that even the locals lose their bearings.

A couple of men have brought their own scissors and, technically, you just have to cut a couple of strands of hair but I need a real haircut. Eventually we do find an actual barber shop in the 20-story mall overlooking the Kaaba but it is not the same as sitting on the street. Mecca has plenty of good hotels, restaurants and shopping, of course. Most pilgrims seem to feel obligated to bring back souvenirs, letting all their friends know they have been. I see all the typical kitsch: snow-globes of the Kaaba, prayer-beads in special boxes saying they are from Mecca – but actually from China – and lots of bottled Zamzam water.

Abdallah and I eat at what the Saudis call a “Bukhari” restaurant although as far as I can tell it does not have anything to do with Uzbek food. It has two options: chicken and rice or lamb and rice. We eat with our hands and sit on the floor. No Saudi meal seems complete without “shata”, a Louisiana-style hot sauce. The little glass bottles are as ubiquitous as ketchup in an American restaurant.

You can request a “Kaaba-view”

My hotel room is amazing but what do you expect in one of the world’s tallest buildings? Instead of a “sea-view” you can request a “Kaaba-view” so you can see the crowds of pilgrims continually circling the Kaaba all night long from your window. You certainly know which direction to face when praying. Most rooms also have a live broadcast from the mosque below.

Dr. Munir tells me that the new railway system linking Mecca with the rest of Saudi Arabia, and with other countries in the area, should be operational in the next ten years. Other Gulf states are investing billions of dollars – Qatar for the World Cup, Dubai as a regional center for banking and commerce – into what appears to be a constant state of “Under Construction” in the region. Mecca is no different except that it is a functioning site for ritual practices, 24/7, for Muslims from all over the globe.

The price of all this new construction is the loss of atmosphere. Where are the dark corners with 1,000-year-old oil lamps lighting the stones worn by millions of bare-footed pilgrims? Where are the flights of thousands of stairs or the carnival atmosphere of a place like Marrakesh with tables of human teeth and charmed cobras? Instead, I find escalators, air-conditioning, parking garages. This is not the Mecca of the prophet Muhammad with African diviners, the smell of burning meat, the spilled blood of sacrificed camels.

The experience may have been sanitized, like the vinyl leaves on the trees at Disneyland, but it is not that it is fake, because it is definitely real. These are the footsteps of Adam. This is the Kaaba that Abraham built and Noah’s Ark circled. This is where the prophet Muhammad lived. But it is too clean, too easy, too big.