This is not a trip report.
This is an article about a city of global significance that sees little coverage on travel blogs; a place that is simultaneously mysterious and very popular; one that I would absolutely love to visit, but probably never will. This is an article about Mecca.
Mecca (Makkah) is a city with over 2,000 years of history. Situated in the present-day Saudi Arabia, it is Islam’s holiest city where Prophet Muhammad was born and had his first revelation of the Quran. Millions of Muslim pilgrims travel there annually, in a tradition that has lasted 14 centuries. As a result, Mecca is reportedly one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the Muslim world.
In the English language, the word “mecca” is synonymous with a place that “many people visit or hope to visit”. People with absolutely no knowledge of or interest in Islam may find themselves using the name in a sentence like “Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball.”
The city of Mecca is serviced by King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah, 100km northwest of the city. You can get there on Saudia via New York, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, British Airways via London, Emirates via Dubai, Etihad via Abu Dhabi, etc. Once there, familiar brands of accommodation including Fairmont, Le Meridien, Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott exist throughout the city. Options to visit Mecca on points seem abundant.
Resources like MuslimTravelGirl exist to help Muslims understand the logistics around planning pilgrimages to Mecca. Aside from her, no blogger on BoardingArea has thus far made mention of this city. I was intrigued by that because, even as a non-believer, I found Mecca to be fascinating for many reasons.
TOP TRAVEL DESTINATION IN HUMAN HISTORY
Masjid al-Haram, a.k.a. the Grand Mosque of Mecca, is among the religious wonders in the world. It is not only the oldest and largest mosque in the world, it is also at the heart of the Islamic pilgrimages known as Hajj (taking place during a very specific five-day window of the year) and Umrah (same trip during any other part of the year). Each capable Muslim is required to perform the Hajj once in his or her lifetime. That is, even when you exclude curious travel enthusiasts like me, 1.6 whopping billion people currently alive either have been to Mecca or wish to go there at some point.
Masjid al-Haram contains some of Islam’s most important relics: the Kaaba, the mysterious Black Stone, and the well Zamzam (that my favorite restaurant in Singapore is apparently named after). The original mosque structure was established by Muhammad himself in 7th century A.D.. Subsequently, it has been rebuilt several times to accommodate the ever-increasing number of people coming to it. Currently occupying 88.2 acres of land with an official capacity of 900,000, it holds more people than the eight largest American football stadiums combined. During Hajj, they allow up to 4 million people in the mosque at the same time.
And I thought my school had a large football stadium…
The annual Hajj in recent years averaged 2-3 million pilgrims. The 2015 Ramadan reportedly saw over 14 million visitors to Mecca. Compared to the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square, which draws 1 million visitors each year, this is highly impressive. Considering that these pilgrimages have been taking place since around the 7th century A.D., the Islamic holy city is possibly the most visited destination in human history.
At this point, some of you might say “just because everyone is doing it does not mean you should too.” That’s true, technically. But try telling that to Yelp or Instagram users – humans are naturally attracted to what the others are doing. If all your friends posted a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, it’s hard to resist booking yourself a flight to Paris. It fascinates me to no end that countless people have traveled here for the same purpose, while empires around the world rose and fell. If you are a true travel enthusiast, I bet you’d itch to check it out, as well.
CENTER OF SPIRITUAL ENERGY
Kaaba is the black cubical structure in the center of Masjid al-Haram. Muslims believe that it was originally built by Abraham and has a 4,000-year history. It was the reason for the gigantic mosque to be built where it was built. It contains a mosque on the inside, through a 300kg gold door.
Even though this black cube looks like a small dot in the middle of the Grand Mosque, it’s as tall as a typical four-story building.
When I first saw the picture of Kaaba as a kid, I was disappointed by its lack of architectural complexity. As I think about it now, its simple geometric shape actually makes it stand out among the world’s man-made structures. What other famous building looks like a cube? Oh yeah, the Fifth Avenue Apple Store, which I was convinced to be a modern copy of the Kaaba…
On its opening day 10 years ago, iPilgrims formed a circular line around this Apple Store’s entrance. It looked awfully similar to a ritual performed during the Hajj.
Anyhow, I digress. The significance of the Kaaba is that it is considered the “House of God”. No matter where they are in the world, Muslims face Kaaba’s direction when they pray. This direction is called Qibla, and a lot of mathematics went into precisely calculating it for all possible prayer locations on Earth. Guidelines have even been established for Muslim astronauts to determine Qibla in outer space!
Muslims have five daily prayers. So for each rotation the Earth makes, more than one prayer per living (human) soul is channeled to this very specific location. That’s an incredible number. Most other religions don’t have a comparable earthly location (Judaism being an exception). So, if an alien spaceship approaches Earth and can measure the spiritual signals generated by these prayers, the location of Kaaba must look like the single most important spot on this planet.
If it’s starting to sound hypocritical for a non-believer to discuss spiritual signals, let’s dial back and think about just the physical indicators of Qibla. Establishments (such as hotels) in many countries have arrows that point in the direction of Mecca, to spare their patrons of needing a compass. Each time I walked into a hotel room with such an arrow, I’d pause for a second and think about what direction it was, the workers who put it in place, and the guests who have followed it to perform their prayers. This curiosity accumulated over time, and I became more and more interested in seeing whatever these arrows were pointing to.
THE MODERN MARVEL
The historic and religious aspects of Mecca are no doubt incredible, but what really caught my attention were the more recent developments in this city. I love skyscrapers, and the world’s coolest (in my opinion) resides here:
Abraj al Bait, a.k.a. Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, is the world’s third tallest building. In a world where everyone is fighting to be number one, that alone may not sound too impressive. However, this building is not only tall, it is also ridiculously large. It’s got far more floor space than any other skyscraper in the world, equivalent to 7.5 Empire State Buildings.
Individual diagrams courtesy of SkyscraperPage.com.
The “clock tower” part of it has the four largest clock faces in the world. Each of them can fill up half of an American football field. On a clear day, these clocks are supposedly visible from 16 miles away. Wow… Imagine being able to see anything in Manhattan from Long Island!
The length of the minute hand is equivalent to three first downs.
This mega structure looks like a fortress from a fantasy movie, and it stands right next to the Grand Mosque. Well-to-do pilgrims who can afford to stay at the Fairmont Hotel within the Clock Tower have very convenient access to the holy site.
The mosque that can hold 4 million people looks small at the foot of Abraj al Bait.
It’s impressive enough for any city to have a mega structure like Abraj al Bait, but Mecca isn’t stopping there. To accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims, another gigantic hotel is being built. When completed, Hotel Abraj Kudai will have 10,000 rooms and five helipads. In the nearby city of Jeddah, Kingdom Tower is scheduled to claim the title of the world’s tallest building, exceeding Burj Khalifa by a whopping 20% and reaching one kilometer in height.
Artist rendering of Kingdom Tower (left) and Hotel Abraj Kudai (right)
It is unfortunate, however, that the construction of these modern structures involved the demolition of some ancient artifacts in Mecca, a move that has sparked much controversy. Some of my Muslim friends (who because of their religion value these artifacts greatly) have been harshly critical of the Saudi Arabia government for this.
JUST A SLIGHT PROBLEM
I started looking into the logistics for my eventual visit, and came across this note: NON-MUSLIMS ARE PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING MECCA.
Hmm. I had always known that the Grand Mosque, being the holiest site of the Islamic faith, was strictly forbidden from non-Muslims. I was bummed as a child to learn that I wouldn’t be able to check out the Kaaba (unless my faith drastically changes, of course). But the entire city of Mecca? That can’t be right. How can they possibly enforce that kind of rule on the millions of visitors? Like, set up a check point on every road leading into the city, stop every car, and examine every soul?
Turns out that’s actually the case… Somebody had already tested this out.
Then, I wondered, how would they know if I were a Muslim? There are plenty of Muslims in East Asia and I look like them! It’s not like Donald Trump has already reigned over the world and required every Muslim to register for an ID. Can I, say, just smile and nod when the Mecca Border Patrol asks me to confirm my faith? Being agnostic, it wouldn’t be overly insincere of me to claim partial belief in anything… But, once again, Saudi Arabia has proven itself to be several steps ahead of my thinking. Tourist travel is strictly prohibited, and any visa application requires sponsorship or an official invitation letter. Forget Mecca. I won’t even be allowed to enter the country!
In researching how I might cheat my way into seeing the wonders of Mecca, I came across a trip report of a truly hardcore “travel hacker”. This British guy recently pretended to be Muslim in order to go through Hajj, following the pilgrims every step of the way. He documented his three-part physical and spiritual journey (part 1, part 2, part 3), a highly recommended read for anyone who shares my curiosity.
Despite my lack of belief in any particular supreme being, I recognize that some of the most incredible things in human history would not have been accomplished without a religious purpose. Each time I get the opportunity to witness one of these wonders, I gain a sense of appreciation for the power of faith behind it. The experience can be a better lesson about a religion than any textbook in the world. Mecca, at least on paper, seemed to be one of the best travel destinations for understanding a religion.
I recently read that for non-Muslims, Mecca can be harder to get into than North Korea and Antarctica. As such, I will have to take it off my travel checklist, for now, and just hope that Saudi Arabia changes its tourism policies within my lifetime.
What do you all think about this?
- Does anyone else share my enthusiasm, or am I crazy for wanting to visit Mecca?
- If you are a Muslim, do you agree that non-Muslims should stay out of the holy city?
Disclaimer: I deserve credit for only two of the pictures above. All photos of Mecca are taken from public sources including Wikipedia and news sites.