The two predominant travellers to Saudi Arabia are expats and pilgrims and I fall into the latter category. Although there has been a slight growth in leisure tourism, religious tourism is a thriving industry, bringing in two to three million visitors a year. Mecca is the holiest site for Muslims around the world, whether it’s a calling to the major pilgrimage of Hajj or the minor pilgrimage of Umrah. I have embarked on the sacred minor pilgrimage during my travels to Saudi Arabia and I would like to share my spiritual and less spiritual experiences.
I was stunned by the beautiful Ottoman internal architecture
The first and foremost step is to change into clean clothes, which was welcome after my seven-hour flight. The spiritual part of this step is that it’s a specific uniform consisting of two pieces of white, towel-like cloth for men, whilst women are free to wear any abayah — a free-flowing long gown — of their choice. My hotel wasn’t far from the Great Mosque of Mecca, so walking there was easy. I was stunned by the beautiful Ottoman internal architecture of the mosque as I prepared to see the Ka’ba for the first time. The height of this holy mosque was staggering, the four floors all tiered and carrying towering minarets, facing inwards and encircling the Ka’ba — the direction Muslims face for the daily prayers.
The second step is to walk counter-clockwise around the Ka’ba seven times whilst praying and asking God for all of your wishes and desires. It truly was a juxtaposition, to be walking amongst crowds of people yet having one of the most personal and intimate conversations one can ever have. It was dizzying, not because of the circumambulation, but rather the overwhelming spirituality and sentiment I felt that day. The sounds of prayer resonated from the elevated minarets, a crescendo of worship and devotion.
It was dizzying…the overwhelming spirituality and sentiment
The third step was to re-enact the Quranic story of Hajra (or the Biblical Hagar), Mother of Ismail (or Ishmael), who was stranded in the desert trying to find water for her baby. As the narrative goes, she ran between two mountains and climbed to the top of each one seven times before water was available. The two mountains have been preserved for this very purpose and as tradition dictates, I ran (or walked quickly) between them. I was in Saudi during the holy fasting month, so there was no water available to me at the time. The fourth and final step is to cut an inch of your hair or shave if you’re male, which is symbolic for removing your sins after the pilgrimage.
Another holy site Muslims are encouraged to visit is the city of Medina. It’s sacred because the Holy Prophet spent a great deal of his life there. The main attraction is the mosque, once constructed of palm tree leaves, mud walls and date tree trunks, it is now an extravagant Ottoman structure with white marble floors and pillars, and a colossal green dome decorated with Arabic calligraphy and geometric patterns. I visited this Mosque daily but also took part in excursions during my stay. I travelled to the deserted area of Uhud, well known for being a battlefield many years ago. On this visit, I stopped at three different wells. I experienced a child-like fascination when I dropped the copper buckets to retrieve water and was surprised to find that it was cool, despite knowing that it came from a hollow, shaded hole in the ground. I think I didn’t expect anything to be remotely cool in the desert heat.
The weather is definitely something to be reckoned with in the summer months, which was when I visited. Temperatures would rise to forty-eight degrees Celsius during the day, which is why I would sleep in until late afternoon. The heat in summer is considered bad weather by the locals, but a luxury for me, since it’s never warm enough for me in the UK. Therefore, I did try to take advantage of it as much as possible, but it was still the fasting month so staying indoors was more suitable. A concern for many people is how the Islamic dress affects the wearers in the heat, but it’s safe to say that isn’t a worry. The long gowns are flowy and therefore cooling and not much needs to be worn underneath.
Breaking my fast every day consisted of a feast of dates, hummus, salads and bread, but of course, this was just an appetiser. Contrary to what some people may believe, the holy cities aren’t nomadic — they are metropolises furnished with skyscrapers and enriched with every fast food brand the west has to offer. After my first meal, I would go down to the mall and take my pick of the commercial foods for seconds. Another surprising fact about Saudi Arabia is that it boasts its own thriving fast food franchise. Al-Baik serves the crispiest fried chicken with the best garlic sauce I’ve ever tasted. My favourite food from their menu is the shrimp wrap, oozing with garlic and chilli sauce and stuffed with pickles.
Another incredible seafood affair I had was on an excursion in a small, sandy, dry village. I dined in a tiny restaurant stuck in time, where the owner lured us in with promises of fresh fish. However, this was questionable and slightly worrying because as far as I’m aware, there can be no “catch of the day” in the middle of a desert. Nevertheless, the fish, fresh or otherwise, was a seafood delight, marinated in spices, grilled to perfection and drizzled with fresh lemon juice.
Although a pilgrimage isn’t really considered a holiday, I have to say it was a spiritual getaway in its own right. I long to return to the holy land, embark on the major pilgrimage and undertake many more food endeavours.
Featured image © Camera Eye