Visiting Mecca is always this overwhelming experience, even for the not so observant. I’ve seen the Ka’aba (black square building) for years in pictures and on television, and finally seeing it in real life is both surreal and exciting.
The layout and architecture of the mosques in Mecca and Medina gives one the feeling of being on a futuristic movie set. Where everyone is in robes, surrounded by the desert, speaking different languages, under high tech domes, and space shuttle shaped canopies. It creates a sense of the past and future, and makes you feel like you are on an alien planet, removed from the rest of the world.
Tomorrow marks Eid ul Adha, the festival that commemorates the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. So I thought I’d blog about my first visit to Mecca and Medina on Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) earlier this year. Umrah can take place anytime of the year, whereas the actual Hajj pilgrimage happens annually between the 8th and 12th of of the last month of the Islamic Calendar.
Mecca is where the Prophet was born, and Medina is the city he and his followers migrated to avoid persecution for their beliefs.The two holy cities function in a more autonomous manner than the rest of Saudi Arabia. Segregation rules are less stricter. Women wear clothes that reflect their cultural origins. You meet pilgrims from all over the world from diverse Islamic practices.
I didn’t take too many pictures as I was busy with the rituals of visiting Mecca. When going on pilgrimage one enters into a purified state known as Ihram. In this state men wear a Gandhi-esque outfit consisting of two unstitched pieces of white cloth, one wrapped around the waist and the other draped over the left shoulder. They are not allowed to cover their right shoulder until their pilgrimage is complete. Women wear simple attire that usually adheres to Islamic modesty rules. They are expected to keep their faces uncovered. The attire is meant to spread the ideas of equality and humility.
In the state of Ihram pilgrims cannot harm plants or animals, carry weapons, have sexual relations, use perfumes, or cut hair or nails. One’s wealth or status must not be exhibited, and this is the only period in a Muslims life that almost monk like rules are made mandatory.
After entering Mecca in Ihram, pilgrims go around the Ka’bah seven times. The circuit starts at the black stone which is embedded on the walls of the building. According to belief, the black stone has an ancient history starting from Adam and Eve, and has meteoric origins. It was apparently initially set into this place of worship by Prophet Abraham.
This is followed by running between the two hills of Safa and Marwah. I thought this would be tough but then I found that a large and modern air conditioned passage has been created between the two hills. This ritual is based on Hajar’s (Abraham’s wife) search for water for her son Ismail, by circling the two hills and her eventually discovering the Zam Zam spring.
There are five days of rituals, with the first day being spend in these tents in Mina, where pilgrims are expected to pray and live together for a day and half. They then move to Arafat where the Prophet made his Last Sermon.
My favourite line from the sermon has always been. “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”
For a full list of the rituals check here.
On the day of the festival, an animal is sacrificed, and the meat distributed among to those in need in the world. The sacrifice is symbolic of Abraham’s sacrifice to God, which was considered a test of faith and an act of submission. Men shave their heads and women cut their hair, as a sign of letting go of their vanity.
Islamic prayer rituals are a mind, body and spiritual exercise and are held in congregation with worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder. Harsh Arab weather can make the pilgrimage difficult at most times, and the experience is supposed to test your ego, concentration, determination and sacrifice.
Things they don’t normally tell you about Mecca and Medina.
There are a lot of very cute cats everywhere.
The place is a hotbed for Shawarmas and Arabic rice dishes. But one thing I had here for the first time was the sweet kunafa. In Sri Lanka, kunafa is a sort of pancake layered meat pie. In Saudi Arabia, it is a vermicelli and thickened milk sweet which is just amazing.
The Arabs have pumped a lot of money into the infrastructure, and the place is virtually spotless despite hosting more than a million pilgrims. A lot of technological advances have been made to the cities that gives the pilgrimage that futuristic feel.
My Mecca and Medina experience was mix of austerity and technology, science and religion, sitting on a foundation of history and faith that paid homage to practices from all the religions, and brought all the races of the world together on a single purpose. Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury once envisioned this to be the kind of religion the Martians would practice. Maybe Mecca is Mars after all.
More pictures here.