Mecca – Been There

Mecca: Everything changes, yet stays the same

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 Jochem Wijnands / Getty Images

Mecca – Been There

Mecca: Everything changes, yet stays the same

The tragic death of hundreds of pilgrims in Mecca focused attention on this year’s Hajj. What is it like to first visit this center of the Islamic faith, closed to outsiders?

Brannon Wheeler
Brannon Wheeler History Professor

I am the founding Director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies in Annapolis, yet it was the first time I visited Mecca. I had some romanticized notions about Mecca. I had always imagined, for example, that the entrance to this holy place would be like a border crossing with armed guards, or that there would be some “test” to enter, like the one for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But we just drive in on the freeway.

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.

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

Mecca is a sacred site, off limits to non-Muslim visitors. But, like most of the modern Arabian Gulf, it is also a city constantly under construction and expanding to make way for future development. The price of all this new construction is the loss of atmosphere.

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.