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An important trading and religious site, even before the advent of Islam, Makkah’s place in Arabian and global affairs is now plainly related to its role as the principal city of pilgrimage in this faith. Each year, mainly around the periods of the hajj and Ramadan, millions of pilgrims descend on the city in order to meet religious obligations and to seek guidance. The city sometimes struggles under the strains caused by the mass influx, but there is no denying the appeal of the city and its holy sites to the faithful drawn to it from all four corners of the world.
While not a principle site of pilgrimage in the city, a good place to get an introduction to Mecca is the Cave of Hira. Situated near the summit of Jabal al-Nour, and requiring 1,200 steps to reach, the cave is the site of the prophet’s first revelation from God through the archangel Gabriel. It is a small cave and is now perhaps a bit too busy for contemplation and reflection, but is popular with those interested in its historical and spiritual background. It is situated in present day suburban Mecca. The city centre, with its main pilgrimage sites and practical amenities such as hotels, is approximately five miles away. Visitors who make the trek up the mountain get to experience a great view over the valley and the city.
Every city throughout the world needs a place that is considered its spiritual and psychological centre. Sometimes it is a popular square, sometime a grand place of worship or other significant feature. In all but a handful of cases these centres are local affairs, seldom with much importance beyond the city itself, let alone the nation it is in. In Mecca, things are naturally completely different. Its centre, the Holy Kaaba, is not simply a local affair, but Islam’s most holy site. It is to this rectangular building, situated at the very heart of the immense Al Masjid al-Haram, which Muslims around the world turn to when engaged in prayer. The courtyard surrounding the Kaaba is exceptionally crowded during the Hajj, when millions of pilgrims seek to circle it seven times in an anti-clockwise direction. Many of the city’s better hotels are in the area immediately around the Al Masjid al-Haram, making them popular with visitors whose purpose of visit is pilgrimage.
Due to its important role in religious affairs and the incredible number of visitors it hosts every year, Mecca has seem substantial investment by both Saudi authorities and national and international corporations and hotel groups. The vast majority of the historic city has given way to free public facilities to accommodate the large number of visitors. These include several above and below ground highways and public facilities like open squares, bathroom facilities, and so on. A big camp in the Mina district houses hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in air conditioned tents. Those looking for more luxury and extravagance should visit the Abraj Al Bait. Located at the very heart of the city, right opposite the Sacred Mosque, it is a massive complex consisting of seven high rise buildings, including the fourth tallest building in the world. Most of the towers are occupied by luxury hotels, but the site also features a large shopping mall, prayer hall and the largest clock to be found anywhere in the world.
While the Hajj is the main period of pilgrimage to Mecca, some also visit the city during Ramadan for this purpose. The city is a little quieter at this time and so it is generally easier to get hotel room and move about than during the Hajj. Mecca is perhaps Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city, with regular visitors from many countries and cultures. As a result, visitors and locals alike have a great variety of cuisines to choose from when breaking their fast. There are many Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish restaurants in Mecca, but pilgrims from further afield also bring in new foods and have influenced the city’s dining scene, which can now be said to be “international”.
The city’s main purpose is really fulfilled during the Hajj, when millions of pilgrims from around the world are drawn to it to meet their religious obligations and experience the place where Mohammed lived and received his revelations. The central place of pilgrimage is the Al Masjid al-Haram, where the Holy Kaaba is situated, with pilgrims streaming into the mosque from a number of directions. Visitors with a hotel room nearby will be grateful that they do not have to travel far before contending with the crowds looking to make the seven trips around the Kaaba. Mina is another important location, being the place of preparation before heading for Arafat and the night out sleeping under the stars in Muzdalifah. It is also the site where pilgrims symbolically stone the devil on their return. Mecca faces tremendous strain during the Hajj, with the city and Saudi authorities trying to provide adequate facilities to the millions of pilgrims. Hotels are naturally fully booked during this period and essentially all visitors will be travelling on organised trips including all practical arrangements.