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Articles Blog

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Karyn Planett

Gateway to Mecca

Mecca. Rome. Jerusalem. Lhasa. Varanasi.    

Each fabled city stands at the heart of global faiths whose beacons light up the darkness and stir the souls of believers the world over. Though Mecca has served as a place of pilgrimage for 4000 years, it wasn’t until the 7th century that a “gateway” to receive the faithful who came by sea was opened in the port of Jeddah. Until then, anxious pilgrims were forced to lumber across the blistering Arabian Peninsula by camel caravan.

The Hajj In The Time Of Abraham 

For the record, the Hajj is the pilgrimage made to Mecca by faithful Muslims. Hajjis have made this pilgrimage. Now, on to its story. 

It was Abraham with his son Ishmael who built the Kaaba, that square structure at the center of what is now the Maasjid al-Haram mosque where most of the Hajj rituals happen, and the place toward which all Muslims face during prayers. 

Why Mecca? 

Although surrounded by completely barren countryside, the location of Mecca had one great advantage, known to desert dwellers the world over. A well. In this case the Zamzam Well. 

In Islamic history this well was discovered by Abraham’s son, Ishmail. He was suffering a powerful thirst, which had already caused his mother, Hajar, to run back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah searching for a water source. Frustrated, little Ishmael began kicking the earth around him and suddenly water gushed forth where his feet had scraped. 

The Zamzam Well and its surrounding oasis became a natural crossroads for caravans traversing the region and Mecca became, and still is, a major commercial center in Saudi Arabia. 

The Hajj In The Time Of Muhammad 

Muhammad, who was born in Mecca, and his army of 10,000 Muslims, reclaimed Mecca for Allah in 628. He purged the Kaaba of its pagan deities, declared Mecca the holiest site in Islam, decreed that non-Muslims would never again be admitted to the city, made the Hajj one of the Five Pillars of Islam (along with prayer, profession of faith, giving of alms, and fasting), and began an expansion of his faith that would see the Muslim Empire grow to include North Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe. 

The Hajj must be carried out by every Muslim with the ability and the means at least once in his lifetime. The rituals of the Hajj go back to the stories of Abraham. They include drinking water from the Zamzam Well; traversing the path between Safa and Marwah; walking seven times counterclockwise around the Kaaba and kissing the black stone at its corner; standing vigil for a day on the Plains of Arafat; Stoning the Devil at the jamarat pillars in nearby Mina; and slaughtering an animal in recognition of God’s mercy on Abraham. Though not required, many pilgrims also visit Muhammad’s tomb at the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina before ending the pilgrimage.           

The Modern Hajj         

The rituals of the modern Hajj have become somewhat symbolized out of necessity due to a number of tragic events over the years. And, no wonder. Having upwards of three million people trying to occupy an ancient space intended for thousands is a recipe for trouble. As air travel makes the pilgrimage more accessible to 1.3 billion Muslims from around the world, those numbers continue to increase exponentially. 

The result is predictable. 

In 1990, 1426 pilgrims were trampled in a stampede; in 1994, 270 died; in 1998, 180; in 2004, 251; and in 2006, 346 were killed, 289 injured. Epidemics, road accidents, and “natural” causes contribute even more to the grisly tally. In response, the Saudi government has instituted crowd control measures to relieve the congestion that leads to these mob panics.

Pilgrims circling the Kaaba are now permitted to point at it each time around rather than having to kiss the black stone. 

The Zamzam Well is no longer accessible to the public. Its water is instead pumped to drinking fountains and faucets throughout the pilgrimage area. 

Stoning the Devil takes place from the multi-level Jamarat Bridge against three flat walls constructed with catch basins at the bottom to corral the rocks, thus removing the danger of stray missiles. 

Pilgrims can now purchase a butcher’s credit for a slaughtered animal (a sheep from a single worshipper, a cow for groups of seven) rather than personally dispatching it. The meat is given to charities to feed the poor. 

Air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels, complete with handicap lanes, have been constructed for the trek between Safa and Marwah to cut down on heat-related incidents. 

Jeddah

Those eschewing their own pilgrimage will be rewarded with the substantial delights of Jeddah. Like Mecca before it, Jeddah enjoys the advantages of being at a commercial crossroads. And commerce can be experienced at every level — the camel market and Al-Alawi souk exist alongside the glittering boutiques of Tahlia Street. Every roundabout on the modern road system features a significant sculpture, one of the largest outdoor art galleries around, while old Jeddah struggles to preserve its traditional wood beam houses. 

Centuries of traders and decades of oil industry expats have combined to make Jeddah the most open and cosmopolitan city in a normally closed Saudi Arabian society. It’s such a contrast to its nearby neighbor – that place of devout pilgrimage. 

                                                            Karyn L. Planett