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My Umrah Experience: Inside Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

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.

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:

  1. Entering the state of Ihram
  2. Performing tawaf (circling the Kaaba seven times)
  3. Walking seven times between mount Safah and Marwah
  4. Shaving/trimming one’s hair once all rituals have been completed
  5. Praying

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.

King Fahad Gate of Masjid Al Haram in Mecca During Umrah

King Fahad Gate of Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

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.

Walkway towards the Kaaba nside Masjid Al Haram

Walkway towards the Kaaba nside Masjid Al Haram

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.

Masjid Al Haram Terrace Overlooking Kaaba in Mecca

Terrace Overlooking the Kaaba inside Masjid Al Haram

The Kaaba

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.

Glass Enclosure Containing Abraham's Footprint Near the Kaaba in Mecca

Glass enclosure containing Abraham’s Footprint Near the Kaaba

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. 

"Kaaba

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

Pilgrims walking between Safa and Marwah inside Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

Safa and Marwah Inside Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

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.

Mount Safa seen from the upper level of Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

Mount Safa seen from the upper level of Masjid Al Haram in Mecca

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.

Masjid Al Haram Entrance Gate Mecca

A gorgeous gate I passed on my way out of Masjid Al Haram

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.

Completing Umrah

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. 

Prayer Hall inside Masjid Al Haram Mecca

Prayer Hall inside Masjid Al Haram Mecca

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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Ariana Arghandewal

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting such an unusual story (particularly for a travel/points blog). I really enjoyed reading about a culture that I knew so little about. Even with acquaintances of Muslim faith they don’t talk about their religious experiences.

  2. Ariana, thanks for a great read – I really enjoyed it !
    Amazing to know that women are no longer being harassed or refused while entering Saudi !

    Many moons ago I used to live as a white, married, christian woman for some years in a remote, isolated area of Saudi. I had to marry my husband at the time in order to receive a visa to enter and live in the country as his dependent. No single women were allowed entry, only in very few exceptions.
    At that time it was forbidden to enter the country legally with anything considered “western-values”, let alone pictures of forbidden targets like i.e. ads or articles in magazines about western women and their attire. Among many other things, those would be the first items confiscated from your luggage after the most diligent inspection when entering through customs.
    Our home airport was Dhahran and from there it was a two hour flight by private aircraft to our location.
    Our western compound was situated on one of the through-routes to Mecca and I would watch the constant stream of male pilgrims passing by, by car, on foot, and even on camel or donkey – totally fascinated – noticing at the same time the total absence of women.
    It was very common in that time to see the Saudis transport their women in the back of their pick-up trucks, together with their goats.
    We as foreigners were not allowed to travel even in the direction of Mecca (6 hrs away by car) and were constantly watched by the religious police.
    There always had to be detailed, alternative escape plans in place – just in case one had to leave the country urgently for whatever reason
    Thus, just before my husband’s assignment was about to end, we had to leave the country immediately after it had become known through various channels that the religious police had become aware that we had visited Israel – entering from Europe with different passports on a separate occasion some weeks before.
    I have not been back ever since, although I understand by reading your report that the country
    might have relaxed it’s laws towards visitors and women in particular.
    Perhaps I should give it a try again, visit my old stomping grounds and admire the seemingly positive changes the country has gone through !

    • Hello Alice,

      The only thing that I can say is ‘good luck’. I would like to go back to Saudi Arabia myself but unless things have changed recently there are no tourist visas; it is a closed country unless you are on a religious pilgrimage. Btw, I lived outside of Jeddah.

      Kelli

      • They are offering tourist visas. Not that I see the appeal in visiting Saudi Arabia outside of a religious pilgrimage – there are more interesting Arab countries to visit outside of the Gulf, IMO.

          • This is an interesting comment because when I did my research on the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (which by the way was among the most beautiful things I’ve seen), I came across several people claiming that it was just okay and not comparable to the impressiveness of mosques all over Saudi Arabia. Obviously people have different preferences, but at least some value SA very highly for its potential tourism.

          • I thought the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was fine – it photographs very well at night but in person, it’s just so-so. White, with floral painting everywhere. Then there’s a room where tourists can go to look at chandeliers. I didn’t think it was the most impressive mosque I’ve ever been to, and I certainly think they could take the opportunity to educate tourists about a faith that’s been hijacked by the far-right. Instead, they bring them into a room to look at chandeliers.

          • Haha but I loved those chandeliers…

            I definitely agree that there could be more education about the religion itself, but where I disagree is that I see tremendous value for an objectively awesome looking house of worship to open its doors for the public to visit and reap however much/little they please. People who have any desire to learn about Islam tend to have an open mind to begin with, and are likely to learn it one way or another. Having a mosque as a world famous tourist attraction brings in everybody else to get a glimpse at the culture. I sincerely hope that some of those “all Muslims are terrorists” people stumble upon (one of those places like) this mosque and realize, hey people who build such beautiful things can’t possibly be bad.

            Sort of like how Notre Dame wouldn’t be preaching Jesus as savior to its visitors.

          • It’s not so much about preaching, but educating. When I go to an old church like Notre Dame, I’m curious about who built it, why, when, and how. I want to know the significance of certain architectural details and how they’re relevant to that specific faith. If I was completely clueless about Christianity, I’d want to know where/how sermons are delivered, how often, who the religious authority of this place is and how they’re chosen. I just think its kind of a lost opportunity for them to focus so much on a superficial aspect. But I do see merit to the idea of “people who built such beautiful things can’t be all bad.”

  3. Calling somebody you disagree with (the Press Secretary) “deranged” is not good. You can do better.

  4. Regarding the “why Muslim can’t enter Mecca”, I consider it a bummer but believe that the owners of each place has the right to decide who is/isn’t welcome. If Mecca never welcomed non-Muslims and if North Korea does not welcome western foreigners, so be it.

    Comparing the (now repeatedly deemed illegal) travel ban to Saudi Arabia is apples and oranges. The US is founded as a immigrants’ country with explicit separation of church and state. Those of us who came to this country 3 years ago or 3 generations ago have built our American dream on this principle. The anger / backlash against the administration for this ban wasn’t a dispute about our country’s sovereignty over its borders, but about a fundamental betrayal of the American spirit.

    Anyhow. I’d still wish to check out Mecca, but whatever. I don’t entirely buy the security / overcrowding explanation (since the restriction has been in place for a long time) but it’s part of the reason I find Mecca so intriguing… can’t think of another place on earth being so popular.

    • My point is Mecca’s purpose is to be a place for prayer pretty much 24/7. It’s not supposed to be a tourist attraction. If I wasn’t there for the religious experience, I probably would not have understood the appeal of it myself. Since the government has destroyed most historically significant sites, there’s not a whole lot to see and do. I agree, the ban vs. entry to mecca is comparing apples and oranges.

      • Plenty of people visit and appreciate Capitol and White House without necessarily understand or care about US politics, though. I believe the power of curiosity is strong when it comes to anything of significance.

        I do wonder about the size issue. Mecca’s current accommodation limit (which is already impressive) is insufficient not only for curious tourists, but also for the actual pilgrims. Assuming the 1.6 billion Muslims each go on Hajj exactly once during a 50-year healthy adult lifespan, each Hajj season would see 32 million visitors, 10-15x the recent stats! I realize that many people will never be physically or financially capable of performing the ritual, but as travel becomes more affordable and the world population continues to rise, it’s not hard to imagine the demand for annual Hajj to double or triple in our lifetime. Then the laws of physics will dictate that the pilgrimage requirements prescribed 1,400 years ago are no longer possible. What happens then?

        Anyways. Thanks for the write up. It’s always fascinating to read about these despite not being a believer. Also great to see some new pictures (I know photos are technically forbidden).

        • There’s historical significance to the Capitol while everything of historical significance in Mecca has been destroyed by the Saudi government (to prevent idolatry). Your perspective is interesting though – I’ve never done the math like you did. They’re constantly expanding the mosque, but at this rate I’m thinking it will eventually get 10 stories high and you can just forget about getting near the Kaaba. That said, Hajj isn’t obligatory if a person isn’t able to go, which may well happen since the Saudi government already restricts Umrah and Hajj visas. And if, in 1400 years, it gets to the point where most Muslims can’t go, then the non-Muslims can consider it karma for not being allowed in. 😉

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