At the heart of Saudi Arabia’s national identity lies the holy city of Makkah; one of the most visited places on earth.
As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the place to which he returned after migration to Madinah in 622 AD, Makkah (also known as Mecca) is one of the five pillars of Islam he established before his death in the year 632, namely: declaring the oneness of Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger; praying five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; giving to charity; and making the holy pilgrimage to Makkah at least once.
Worldwide, five times a day the global Muslim community turns to face this ancient place of worship in prayer. Makkah acts as a religious compass to the 1 billion Muslims all over the world – all of whom are bound by their religion to visit the holy city at least once in their lives if possible.
As such, each year the city receives millions of religious pilgrims fulfilling their duty to the Prophet. The ritual, known as the Hajj, is currently the largest annual pilgrimage in the world.
During the Hajj, pilgrims walk around the Ka’aba, a sacred cubed structure, seven times. According to Muslim beliefs, the Ka’aba was first built by Abraham and his son Ismail. Inside is a black stone believed to have been given to Abraham by the Angel Gabriel.
The Hajj comprises several rites and traditions, including dressing in white garments, called Ihram and comprising two seamless pieces of cloth. Once properly attired, pilgrims then enter a state of physical, mental and emotional purity.
The date of the Hajj changes each year, in accordance with the Islamic calendar. It takes place between the eighth and 13th days of the last month of the Muslim year. Pilgrimages can be made to Makkah at other times of the year, but the process is known as Umrah, or the ‘lesser pilgrimage’.
The huge logistical and administrative concerns such a major international event produces are dealt with by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. A Supreme Hajj Committee comprising the governors of Makkah and Madinah provinces, as well as various relevant ministers, oversees every detail of the Hajj and Umrah processes to ensure their smooth coordination.
The government also issues special pilgrimage visas that allow pilgrims to visit Makkah and to carry out the traditional excursion to Madinah to visit the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad.
Makkah is around 45 miles east of Jeddah, in the country’s Makkah Province. The closest airport is King Abdulaziz International Airport, which features a dedicated Hajj Terminal specifically designed to cope with the large influx of religious pilgrims passing through on their way to the sacred site.