While researching my Umrah trip, I was told I didn’t need to book a long stay in Mecca because, “Umrah can be performed in about 2 hours.” That’s a fairly accurate time estimate, but at the end of our 4-night stay, I did wish we could have stayed longer. The only thing I can equate this experience to is going on a yoga retreat: A vacation of sorts, where you’re not spending your time figuring out where to go, what to do, what to wear, and generally wearing yourself out. You’re just there for one thing and everything else falls into place around that purpose. Knowing this was my only responsibility during those four days was a big relief.
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If you’re going on your own Umrah trip, you might find this one-page guide helpful. Basically, the rituals of Umrah consist of the following:
- Entering the state of Ihram
- Performing tawaf (circling the Kaaba seven times)
- Walking seven times between mount Safah and Marwah
- Shaving/trimming one’s hair once all rituals have been completed
While men’s Ihram consists of white garb fashioned out of two simple pieces of unstitched fabric, women can wear whatever they want during Umrah. Of course, they must cover everything except for their hands and faces. I found it odd that despite this requirement, the female security guards as well as some local women wore the full niqab and gloves inside the mosque. The dress code did make packing extremely easy. I brought a few pairs of leggings, t-shirts, and maxi dresses that I wore underneath a black abaya. These outfits were comfortable, kept me cool in the heat and were appropriate for the non-religious part of our trip.
Why Non-Muslims Can’t Enter Mecca
I’ve gotten some comments recently about why non-Muslims can’t enter Mecca, and comparing that to the recent Muslim immigration ban. At the risk of sounding like a deranged Press Secretary, this isn’t about discrimination. Mecca is a city where millions of Muslims come year-round to worship. It can get intensely crowded, to the point where people actually get trampled. Even outside of the Hajj season, it can be difficult for pilgrims to perform the rituals of Umrah with large crowds around, which are growing every year. Allowing tourists to add to the flock would make it even more difficult. So while I’m sure it’s disappointing for those who want to see it for themselves, it’s probably best that Mecca stays closed to travelers except for those fulfilling their religious duties.
Inside Masjid Al Haram
We entered Masjid Al Haram through the King Fahad Gate and right away I found myself inside a massive prayer hall. Everyone has to take their shoes off before entering, which is why it’s so important to bring a drawstring bag to carry them in. The prayer hall is huge and features high ceilings adorned with intricate carvings.
There are also shelves throughout the space containing copies of the Quran that anyone can use. Lined up against the walkway are large containers of Zamzam water that are replenished throughout the day.
After quite a long walk, I entered a massive terrace where I caught my first glimpse of the Kaaba – a spectacular and surreal sight. Stairs lead down to the lower level, where the Kaaba is actually located and where the tawaf is performed. This is best done at night, when the sun isn’t out and the weather is much cooler. The heat from the crowd can be overwhelming as it is, but throw in 85 degree weather plus the sun glaring down at you and it can get downright unbearable.
The Kaaba is the main attraction of Mecca, so to speak. It was built by Abraham and reconstructed many times since. In fact, there is a glass enclosure near the Kaaba, said to contain Abraham’s footprints, which were formed while he was building the original structure.
An interesting fact I came across was that the Kaaba was originally rectangular. When the powerful Quaraish tribe was rebuilding it, they vowed not to use any funds obtained from vices like gambling and prostitution. A testament to the corruption of the Quaraish tribe, they were only able to come up with enough non-dirty money to rebuild the Kaaba as a cube.
Today, there is a semi-circular wall at one end of the Kaaba, which signifies the length of the original structure. A lot of people go inside to pray after completing tawaf, as it is said that being within its parameters is akin to being inside the Kaaba itself.
Another aspect I was surprised by was the diversity of the crowd. Sure, I knew Mecca attracted Muslims from all over the world, but seeing it was something else. There were middle eastern people alongside Asians (Malaysians, Indonesians, and Chinese seemed to be the dominant groups), Africans, and even Eastern Europeans. Moreover, the variety in age was interesting. I saw a man walking around the Kaaba with an infant that couldn’t have been more than a month old; elderly couples who stopped and leaned on each other frequently; children walking excitedly alongside their parents; and a young man with no legs who was carried towards the Kaaba by two other men who seemed to have no relation to him whatsoever.
The Black Stone at The Kaaba
A noteworthy part of the Kaaba is The Black Stone, which is believed to have fallen on earth alongside Adam and Eve. It’s virtually impossible to touch, as there are massive crowds of people who, once they reach the Black Stone, refuse to leave. I was very determined and only got within about four feet of it before claustrophobia got the best of me. As part of the tawaf rituals, pilgrims are instructed to touch the Black Stone or to simply point to it. I decided it was better to not touch it at all than to shove and potentially hurt people in an effort to get to it.
I did get very lucky on my first day while walking with my cousin. While approaching the Yemeni Corner, a path just opened up and we were able to walk right up to it without any obstacles. Touching the actual Kaaba was also not as difficult as I had imagined – especially on that first day.
Walking Between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah
After completing the tawaf, pilgrims have to walk between Safa and Marwah seven times. The story goes that Abraham was commanded to leave his wife Hagar and newborn son Ishmael in the dessert. After running out of food and water, Hagar ran back and forth between these two hills, using them as lookout points to find water and keep sight of her infant son. Eventually, she returned to find a well had sprung up next to Ishmael, which would become known as the Well of Zam Zam.
The area between Safa and Marwah is enclosed within Masjid Al Haram and kept cool. Pilgrims walk a total of seven times between these hills and recite certain prayers at each end. Men are instructed to run when they get to an area marked with green lights. A lot of people wonder why only men have to run and I imagine it’s to make things just a tad more difficult for them, so they can really empathize with a woman who had to run that distance in the heat. Women, on the other hand, can empathize all too well.
Falling Asleep Between Safa and Marwah
I had been warned that while the rituals aren’t as rigorous as those of Hajj, it’s good to be somewhat in shape beforehand. I did try to get back into my 10,000-step walking routine, but I should have done that at least two weeks in advance because the walk between Safa and Marwah ended up being too much on that first day. Factoring in my jet lag and general state of physical exhaustion, I had to sit down halfway through and fell asleep against a column in the middle of the hall.
I’m not sure how long I was out but, I realized I had to get some rest. The next day, it was much easier…even though I forgot my socks and had to do it barefoot.
A few steps into my second attempt at tawaf, I felt someone’s hands on my shoulders. I turned around and it was an elderly Turkish woman, who was by herself and did not speak a word of English. She seemed to be struggling, so I took her arm and walked her around the Kaaba for three or four rounds before she found her companion and we parted ways.
If there’s one piece of advice I would give to anyone traveling with someone else, it’s to wear recognizable clothing. It’s easy to get separated from your group and that doesn’t fare well for children or the elderly. Whenever I got separated from my group (which happened quite a lot), I kept an eye out for my cousin’s green headscarf, which stood out in the crowd of mostly black and white clothing.
At the completion of Umrah, pilgrims are instructed to trim at least a finger-tips’ worth of hair. However, it is recommended that men shave their heads if possible. I finished Umrah in the middle of the night and had no idea where to go to cut my hair, so I just did it myself in the hotel bathroom. I didn’t butcher it too badly, considering I used a pair of eyebrow scissors.
Final Thoughts on Umrah
Before we left for Umrah, my dad’s cousin explained to us what a privilege it was to be able to go on this journey, which nearly every elder in our family had undertaken before us. How we were lucky to do this in our youth, with modern conveniences like air travel, hotels, and air conditioning. It’s easy to take these things for granted, but as I wandered around the premises of Masjid Al Haram, this point was driven home.
There were people who didn’t have the money to stay in hotels and instead slept at the mosque. They stored their belongings in lockers and rolled out their cots at night. These people used public bathrooms to wash up, and in the morning they could be seen clustered around small plastic bags filled with hardboiled eggs and bread. Meanwhile, we slept in a suite steps away, with an abundance of food and every imaginable amenity available to us. I had, up until that point, taken this trip somewhat for granted.
Most middle class Americans don’t think of themselves as privileged and I certainly would never have used that word to describe myself before. But in that instance – watching a multigenerational family sitting on a cot outside in the heat, eating their hard-broiled eggs and bread for breakfast – I realized I was privileged in comparison.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to perform Umrah with my family in tow. It’s something I’ll always cherish and I hope anyone who wishes to, gets a chance to experience it for themselves.
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