It has been about 2 years since I was in Mecca for Umrah, one very short weekend. We flew out on a Thursday evening and were back in Riyadh on Saturday evening.
I found myself thinking of my own time in Mecca while transiting through Dubai and Abu Dhabi the last couple of days, as there were many groups of umrah pilgrims around the airports from Indonesia and Malaysia. The umrah tour groups from Asia appear fun because they are all dressed alike. One beautiful patterned cloth is probably chosen and the men all have matching shirts made and the women either have long caftans or tunics made. I didn’t get any photos in the airports, but one group in Abu Dhabi yesterday, from Indonesia, wore all white which had beautiful matching pink floral embroidery embellishment (yes, the guys were able to pull off pink embroidery.)
Umrah is a condensed pilgrimage which Muslims can make at any time of the year or lifetime (in contrast, Haj is a required once in a lifetime pilgrimage which has a particular timing once each lunar year.) Umrah consists of walking around the Ka’aba 7 times. The Ka’aba is the center for Muslim prayers and is believed to have been reconstructed by Abraham; having previously been the first structure built to worship God.
The marble floors are cooled, so pilgrims are not walking on sun heated stone.
After circling the Ka’aba, pilgrims rush between two nearby hills. This is a reenactment of Hagar frantic search for water after being left with the infant Ishmael in the area by Abraham. A well of Zam-zam did appear/was found and that water is piped to drinking fountains throughout the main mosque.
Mecca is still growing with a construction boom. You will see above the rooftops, the dominating construction cranes.
Yes, we did visit the Starbucks in the Clock Tower mall.
At night the crowds swell. This was even a slower season. The people sitting are securing places for the night prayer.
I didn’t know what to expect from Mecca. The landscape is extremely rocky and steep. The relatively flat areas (though I don’t know if they were leveled at some point) has the oldest construction. In other places they continue to blast out shallow clearings to build more tall hotels. There are many traffic tunnels as well, blasted straight through the rocks.
During the umrah itself, (the rituals described above), men all wear two simple unstitched pieces of white cotton cloth. This is a way of equalizing all men – with no difference between rich or poor, owner or worker, etc. After performing umrah, the men change into their every day clothes. Women wear their everyday clothes and don’t have specially prescribed outfits.
Mecca was possibly the most diverse population of the few places which I visited in Saudi Arabia, and felt the least Saudi. One saw all kinds of National dress, with people coming from every continent. Men and women pray side by side at the Ka’aba and because of the crowds, one often saw couples hold hands to avoid getting separated. All movement centered towards or radiated from the Al-Haram mosque, which surrounded the Ka’aba. Everyone was taking photos and calling home on their cell phones from the mosque to describe the scene for loved ones left behind.
Medinah, on the other hand, felt more like a particularly Saudi city. The dress was more typical of other Saudi cities (with women almost exclusively wearing the abaya.) The plazas would fill at night with Saudi families, just as occurs in other cities. I was in Medinah at the end of Hajj, before the foreign pilgrims had made their way to the city, so perhaps if I had been even a week later, the experience would have been very different.