Image Credit: AFP

The doves of Makkah were all over the central precinct in hordes, picking at the wheat on the asphalt. Our recent trip to Makkah’s holy places brought on an enormous amount of religious imagery: it was as if the animated pictures of the Kaaba we had seen on television were suddenly coming alive in front of us, and we were right in the middle of a gigantic structural phenomenon.

My wife, my brother-in-law and I entered the holy city from Jeddah. My focus was on the sacred places, and the anticipation was overwhelming. We were there to perform Umrah — the non-mandatory lesser pilgrimage made by Muslims to Makkah — like thousands of other people. We were already in a state of Ihram — a special state of spiritual purity — and dressed in two white un-hemmed sheets, one around the waist and the other on the shoulder, which we had changed into earlier at the Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan.

We could have changed our attire at a certain crossing point midair in Saudi Arabian airspace, but decided it would be easier to change at the airport before we left. It turned out that many people on the plane were also in the white shrouds, and had already made the commitment for Umrah through a Salat ablution and simple vow of “I intend to make Umrah”.

Once we passed through passport control in King Abdulaziz International Airport, we were on our way to Makkah in a previously arranged taxi. At around 6pm, we arrived at our hotel, which was swarming with people, and quickly checked in. We then departed for the Al Haram precinct that houses the Grand Mosque and Kaaba — the black-shrouded “House of Allah” — to start the rituals of Umrah. It was difficult to fathom the religious significance of being in the most cherished place in Islam — indeed, where the religion was established by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in the 7th century.

The rituals of Umrah include Tawaf, seven circumambulations around the Kaaba, as well as the Sa’yee, a back and forth movement seven times between Al Safa and Al Marwa hills. I hired a wheelchair and a uniformed attendant, provided at a cost of 200 Saudi riyals (Dh195) that goes towards the upkeep of the Haram. I opted to use a wheelchair as all the walking around would have been too exhausting for me owing to a leg injury I suffered in a car accident decades earlier.

After making arrangements to meet back at the hotel later, my religious journey started. I initially felt awe, being taken around in a wheelchair and seeing people at mid-level when I am used to standing up all the time. My wheelchair attendant was nimble, and entered the Haram from a gateway that is part of a huge construction scheme to be completed by the year’s end. The construction project explains why the Makkah horizon was dotted with cranes.

I was pushed inside a corridor that opened into the Grand Mosque, which encapsulates the Kaaba. At first sight the scene was awe-inspiring, with hordes of people walking round and round in this great House of Allah.

I watched the scene unfold through large open balconies on the second floor of a three-tiered mosque structure. To circle the Kaaba from down below, it would have taken a short time but from up where I was, it would take much longer because we were moving through large corridors. There is a starting point to Tawaf: a simple utterance of Bismillah (in the name of Allah), Allahu Akbar [God is great], and then start moving. To do a full circumambulation around a one kilometre raduis took about seven minutes, and my right shoulder was uncovered, in line with tradition.

The movement in the upstairs corridors was easier because there weren’t as many people as there were on the Kaaba piazza, making it easier for the wheelchair to navigate. It was clear that the wheelchair attendants — quite a few of them — were well-trained and I admired their dexterity: they manoeuvred easily between people walking up and down the corridors, and when one or two would look as if they were within inches of the wheelchairs, the attendants would veer slightly to the right or left. They would also avoid people walking in groups, instead going around them and bypassing human traffic.

It appeared that these men made a short hissing sound when they wanted to warn passersby to make way, quickly opening the route. This is in line with the ‘unspoken’ ethical mode of behaviour that has to be assumed on such rituals.

This part of the mosque has wide and spacious halls and is used for Salat, the five prayers to Allah that Muslims are obliged to perform every day. During the Tawaf, we had two more laps to do before the Isha prayer — the final Salat of the day. My attendant parked the wheelchair next to a row of men preparing for the prayer and I joined in next to them. Salat must be performed standing up, then kneeling, and finally prostrating to Allah in total attention and submission. It can be performed on wheelchairs for people who have physical ailments, signifying its flexibility.

Once the prayer was complete, we continued Tawaf. One vital aspect of submission is supplication: utterances of prayer to Allah. Sometimes, during the circumambulation, people may initially forget due to the place’s aura and the wide structure overwhelming you as you look onward and beyond. On different occasions, the man behind me gently reminded me to supplicate. This, I did, and after a while I continued on my own.

As I passed the different spaces, it was astounding to get glimpses of the kaaba and see people’s heads occasionally moving. There was something special about my surroundings: with the structure around me still being upholstered and white marble being re-incased, there was a unique spiritual ambiance. When we reached the end of the final lap, the Tawaf was finalised by another short Salat in submission to the Almighty. Thus the first part of this Muslim ritual ends, and Sa’yee begins.

The hills of Al Safa and Al Marwa are protected by two special elongated halls. There are special two-way paths in between them for wheelchairs. The length of the path is 390 metres, and I was pushed down one way and up the other for seven laps.

Just as in Tawaf, there is a lot of divine symbolism in Sa’yee. Al Safa and Al Marwa represent the number of times Hajar frantically walked up and down the two small hills in search of water for her crying baby, Esmail. On one part of the walk, the wheelchair would gain speed, almost racing, and then return to its normal pace. Similarly, at a certain section of this stretch pilgrims would jog. This is another representation: history has it that when Hajar was on either hillside, she was able to see her baby and know he was safe. However, when she was in the valley between the hills, she was unable to see her son, and would thus run whilst in the valley and walk at a normal pace when on the hillsides. At the end of the seventh lap, she found that a spring had broken forth from where the angel Jibreel hit the ground with his wing.

This spring is now known as the Zamzam Well, and it has continued to provide water until today. It was a reward to Hajar for her sustenance, patience and effort. During Sa’yee, I didn’t drink the Zamzam water, but during the Tawaf I drank a cup from one of the countless containers existing in the Haram.

Once I finished the last lap, I was taken back to the hotel where I waited for my other companions. In one sense, this marked the completion of Umrah. This was only the first of a four-day religious visit, however. We were there for prayers and supplication; to replenish our mind and soul from worldly desires and take time off from the whirlwind of everyday life.

The next day, we were up at the crack of dawn, just in time for the Al Fajr prayer. We prayed in the central precinct, just outside the Grand Mosque. I found a tight spot to pray with my brother-in-law, while my wife prayed in a separate section just behind us. The scene at this hour of the morning was breathtaking: lights shining, hordes of people in rows, a full courtyard and streams of pilgrims holding up their hands to Allah. After completion, we went back to the mosque and sat in the back rows of the piazza, facing the great Kaaba. The circumambulation of people around the House was continuing; in fact, it never stops.

According to the Quran and Islamic Hadith, it was Prophet Ebrahim with the help of his son, later Prophet Esmail, who raised the foundation of the Kaaba to become the ‘House of Allah’ where people could come and congregate.

No longer in Ihram, we could wear our normal clothes. Like everyone else, we found a tight place and sat down reading the Quran and watching the Kaaba. This was a mesmerising experience: watching the House of Allah from a distance that couldn’t have been more than 100 yards. I feasted my eyes on the cubed structure which, according to Islamic saying, is worship by itself.

Surrounding the central precinct was a chain of five-star hotels: elongated tall structures with shopping centres and restaurants for the pilgrims. These sit underneath the massive Makkah Tower Clock, which is the fourth tallest structure in the world and the third largest in terms of floor area, and dominates the Makkah skyline and terrain.

After breakfast, we flagged down a taxi next to the hotel and told the driver we wanted to see Arafat, the great mount that is part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage which Muslims have to perform once in a lifetime as part of the five pillars of Islam. My first visit here in 2011 with my wife was confined to the Haram precinct; we didn’t go to other Muslim places we had heard so much about. I had long wanted to see Arafat, Muzdaliffah, Mina and the Jamarat Bridge, where pebbles are cast at the devil; all rituals of the pilgrimage. Here was our chance.

After we drove out of Makkah on the highway, about 20 kilometres from the city, we arrived at Arafat, the famous Islamic site. We were now able to make sense of what we’d seen on television; huge terrain surrounded by land and hills, and an expanse of plains leading to the Arafat mountain. It is here that the pilgrims gather during Hajj to pray to Allah and seek forgiveness.

My wife and her brother took the spiralling steps to the elevation that looks directly towards Arafat mountain, also invariably called the Mount of Mercy. I couldn’t get to the top, so I stopped midway and waited. There were other visitors from different nationalities who had also come to look at this awesome place, mentioned at length in the Quran and embedded in Islamic texts, Hadith, precepts and narratives.

After Arafat, we passed through Muzdaliffah, Mina, looked from afar at the Jamarat Bridge, and then went on to Cave Hira, where Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) received his first revelations of the Quran from Allah through the angel Jibreel. The cave is on top of Noor Mountain, at a height of 270 metres above sea level. Before the revelations, Prophet Mohammad used to come here and spend days in contemplation; one month out of every year during Ramadan.

We saw the cave and the mountain from afar, and afterwards the taxi took us to Makkah’s Grand Mosque where, like everyone else, we sat facing the Kaaba, awaiting the Dhuhr prayer.

The journey of Umrah, which is seen as a “lesser pilgrimage” than the Hajj because there are fewer rituals Muslims are called upon to perform, is nonetheless filled with prayers and sheer spiritual fulfillment. For this reason, Muslims from many countries, both Arabs and those from Africa, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, were assembling, performing different religious duties, and occasionally drinking the Zamzam water.

Worshippers move through the Haram through all hours of the day; in morning, noon and night. This, I thought, should be called the “city that never sleeps”. According to official figures, 15 million pilgrims came to the city in 2015. Here, you could see them everywhere.

One practice I found disconcerting, though which I myself indulged in, was taking photographs. Almost everywhere you looked people were photographing the Kaaba, the mosque, the surroundings and themselves. We even saw as an Egyptian who videostreamed the Kaaba and its surroundings to his folks back home, screaming “here it is, here it is”. There were countless “selfies” as well: people photographing themselves and their friends together. I suppose this is part of adopting to technology and social media, although a few years ago this was not allowed. Authorities might like to consider this again; after all, this is a place of religious worship and meditation between man and Allah.

Finally, a word for those who work to organise these daily masses of people: The Haram police officers. They are everywhere at all times, making sure the flow of human traffic is running smoothly, whether around the Kaaba, in Masjid Al Haram, or outside its precinct. There was always a smile, a helping hand (as was offered to me as I staggered back to the hotel), as well as firmness that is needed when many crowds begin to gather and assemble in preparation for Salat. What I saw was excellence and friendly treatment. The Haram is kept spotless at all times due to 24-hour cleaning services and the impeccable organisation that such a hefty feat involves; this, however, is another story.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.