Visiting Saudi Arabia: the Mecca of Mecca
Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
You’ve watched the news and seen a multitude prostrating and praying in the Mosque at Mecca. Well the closest you’ll get is watching it on TV because the city where Mohammed (PBUH*) founded Islam is actually a forbidden city for non-Muslims: there’s an ID check a few miles out of town. If you are not a Saudi citizen (which legally confirms one’s status as Muslim: non-Muslims can’t be citizens), your iqama (Saudi Green Card) or visa will attest to your religion.
You can convert, of course, in which case the Iman (priest) will issue you documents for your visa. Conversion is not a difficult process, but not necessary for non-Mecca Saudi travel.
One of the five pillars of Islam is “Hajj” – pilgrimage – and the faith dictates that if they have the health and the wealth, all Muslims are required to visit Mecca at least once in their life. In fact, before the discovery of oil in the 1930s, Hajj taxes supplied almost all of the then nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s revenue. Still today millions perform it and are given visas as a percentage of their country’s Muslim population. It works out to one visa per thousand Muslim citizens and it ends up being one of the largest pilgrimages on earth with an average of two million souls attending. Traditionally, the Saudis have been slack on infrastructure, crowd control, and public safety resulting in numerous stampedes, crushes, heat deaths and the like, even as recently as two years ago.
So you fly to Jeddah, to the beautiful tent like Hajj Terminal and don your white robes. They’re compulsory for all participants to abjure any hint of rank or wealth. Everybody dresses the same but every pilgrimage is as different as every wallet. Bargain packages are available (a few grand or so), all the way up to penthouse limousine tours for the rich. Then a short trip to the spectacular Masjid al Haram Mosque in nearby Mecca (see photo). Also on Hajj men get a haircut and every pilgrim is required to sacrifice an animal to give to the poor, a process now done by proxy donation, thank goodness, or that’d be a lot of animal blood with two million “halal” animal throats cut.
The Kaaba building is 39 x 43 x 42ft and actually made of brick. It owes its black color to the kiswa, a large enveloping silk black cover, remade each year by a special factory of embroiders near Mecca. It is black now, but in past centuries it has been white, green, and even red. After each Hajj season it is cut up and the pieces given to foreign dignitaries. The building is hollow and, presumably with the right connections, one can even enter it for its annual cleaning with the King. There is video of the space inside the Kaaba cube here.
One must circumambulate it seven times counterclockwise. Getting specific here, the cube is not “the stone.” There is indeed a beach ball sized “black stone” at/in the east corner of the Kaaba building embedded in a strangely feminine looking silver frame. Allegedly a meteorite, it was revered long before Islam came along in the 600s. It was horribly damaged in a siege in 683 and the reconstituted, much worn stone has been weathered by billions of touches and kisses for 1300 years. To touch or kiss it is auspicious, but due to its popularity this is a very lofty ambition: the huge Mosque is packed most of the time and it’s in a tight corner. Interestingly, before Islam the Kaaba held 360 other stone idols of the polytheistic Meccan Gods.
The biggest gripe of the austere Wahhabi-Salafist sect ruling Saudi Arabia is “idolatry.” This is broadly defined as anything like bowing to “graven images” – pictures, statues, or representations of living things and even includes a prohibition of TV and photos for the stricter adherents. Pursuant to that anti-idolatry effort over the last few decades the Saudis have bulldozed and destroyed numerous historic Islamic sites – all the places one would expect to be special in a religion; homes of the founders and families, the scribes, tombs and graves, etc. This includes Mohammed’s very home. They’ve turned them into parking lots, hotels and a public toilet (!), outraging most of the Islamosphere. There’s no real equivalent to this historical vandalism other than maybe dynamiting the Vatican, the Wailing Wall, or the Dome of the Rock.
It’s very important to understand that not all Muslims are as harsh as the Saudis and their actions and ideology have caused much dissent and upset at home and abroad. They and their intellectual descendants ISIS are as unrepresentative of the vast majority of Muslims worldwide as the Amish are of Christianity.
One can visit the non-Mecca part of Saudi Arabia as a tourist, but it’s a pain. Despite a professed shift away from oil towards tourism pursuant to the current administration’s “Vision 2030 Plan,” visas are odious, expensive, and a hassle. If you’re a single woman forget it, and if you’re married, better get a veil and walk behind your husband: not an indignity many Western women would be cool with. There are few famous sites and (new) cinemas, and no bars or booze. Locals are forced to shutter shops and pray five times a day. There are some museums and art galleries, and also public beheadings on Fridays outside the courts, usually of foreigners. So there’s that.
*”PBUH” – Peace Be Upon Him – a stylized blessing Muslims often write after prophets’ names, similar to the Jewish spelling of “G-d” with a hyphen.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in NYC who studied Middle East politics at Melbourne and Georgetown Universities and Arabic at the New School in NYC. He contributes to Forbes and counterpunch.org
PHOTO by Zakaryaamr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6949467