We’ve just finished performing umrah. Unlike last year, we now opted to use air plane to get into Mecca. As no direct flight to Mecca, pilgrims should go via city port Jeddah or The Prophet’s City Madinah.
Doha – Jeddah
A two-hour-ten-minute direct flight took us from Doha to Jeddah. This is to cover about 1519km route distance (or approximately 1326km straight line). I noticed that the plane flew northwardly past Ras Laffan, Bahrain then turn left past Dammam, north of Riyadh and finally Jeddah at its North Terminal of King Abdul Aziz Airport.
One may question how to wear ihram if travelling through air, specifically for Doha-Jeddah-Mecca bound pilgrim since the flight will fly over Taif, a miqat (stated place (for assuming ihram) on the way to Jeddah. I and my sons wore ihram from home but we covered ourselves with thobes (a Qatari long dress garment). Some chose to wear ihram only as I noticed few pilgrims at the airport.
During the flight, Captain would announce a preliminary notice, 30 minutes, before reaching miqat and again 5 minutes before to give sufficient time for pilgrims to change their clothes to ihram. This was when we removed our thobes and were ready to enter the state of ihram.
Stewardess would also distribute an Umrah Arrival Card. This card is like a departure/arrival card with more information required on umrah visa. Just make sure that you know which is visa no and which is entry no. The former is on the top right side of visa and the latter is on the below part of visa.
Qatar Airways (and I guess all other foreign airlines) will land at North Terminal of King Abdul Aziz Airport while Saudi Airlines at South Terminal. No special features of the airport in regard to umrah except that there is a special lane for umrah at immigration gates. I had mixed feeling before my departure about immigration and landing experience in Jeddah Airport. Some have told me their terrible experience with airport staff. I had prepared the worst but what I had was alhamdulillah far from terrible. It was in fact very nice and smooth.
Benefiting from sitting at the front rows in the airplane and disembarking earlier, we avoided a long queue at immigration gates. No direct access from plane to airport so passengers must be conveyed through shuttle busses.
In front of us at one of two immigration gates was a group of pilgrims from Asian countries. Immigration staff looked furious as he shouted at them quite frequently. Hmm…. it’s probably a start of terrible experience. When the group passed, the staff suddenly changed his mood. He was totally nice! “Welcome to Saudi”, he said smiling at us.
We handed over our passport, arrival card and boarding passes.
After immigration gates but before baggage claim area (separated by waist high transparent barriers) we were checked by another staff who took our arrival cards. “Indonesia?” “Terima kasih!” (Ind. thank you), he said. Again, a nice welcome.
Jeddah – Mecca
Mecca is about 85km from Jeddah (about Doha – Dukhan distance). Public bus is available but most pilgrims travel by pre-arranged transportation or by taking an airport taxi (available just after exiting arrival hall), at least until construction of Haramain Highspeed Rail Project completed. I was told that airport taxi would charge about 200SAR for Jeddah – Haram (Mecca). Unfortunately even after haggling 250SAR was the best I could get. Note that taxi meter would never be used! Also make sure you agree the price before boarding the taxi.
You may also be approached or touted by informal (private) taxi driver as you exit baggage claim area.
Jeddah is connected to Mecca via an excellent road and highway connection, thanks to its 3-4 lane 120kph speed limit highway. Cameras were installed at rare intervals. Don’t be surprised to see how drivers in Saudi manage their drive. Lane discipline is minimal, driving on leftmost road shoulder is not uncommon, signal is not required, and abrupt lane changing and risky overtaking is what you should be aware of. Alhamdulillah, after 1 hour 20 minutes we arrived safely at our hotel, Al Marwah Rayhaan by Rotana.
Part Kaaba View
We booked our hotel, Al Marwah Rayhaan by Rotana, through booking.com. The hotel is situated at clock tower complex, or to be precise Abraj Al Bait complex. The driver dropped us at hotel drop-off point accessed through underground road. From here we should take a lift from P-2 level to P11 level which is where hotel lobby is located. Sharing the same floor is Raffles Makkah Palace Hotel and Movenpick Hotel lobby. Check-in experience was easy, and quick. Check-in staff has good English proficiency (rare in Mecca) and he gave us exactly the same room type as we booked. I read many reviews that hotel may not give travellers the same room. Taking hotel own lift (different than we used from drop-off point) we headed to our room at Mezzaine 1.We open our room and rushed to a small window at the end of room. Masya Allah… Kaaba can be seen from our room. Though a quarter of Kaaba is obstructed by one of the minarets, it is still a stunning view of Haram, Kaaba and whatever around it.
It’s almost Magrib praying time (dusk); thousands of people flocking masjidil haram like ants back to their nest as seen from above. We’re ready to start our umrah
Umrah started with tawaf, circumambulation of Kaaba 7 times in anticlock wise direction. Men are encouraged to do this three times at a hurried pace, followed by four times, more closely, at a leisurely pace. The circling is believed to demonstrate the unity of the believers in the worship of the One God, as they move in harmony together around the Kaaba, while supplicating to Allah. Tawaf starts from Hajar Aswad (black stone) corner. Pilgrims are to touch or kiss if possible, otherwise (due to large crowds) it is acceptable to simply point or hold up their hand to the Stone on each circuit. The circling continues passing Maqam Ibrahim (the station of Ibrahim the stone rock on which our Master Ibrahim, peace be upon him, stood when building the Holly Kabaa), passing Hijr Ismail (where Prophet Ismail and his mother Hazrat Hajira are buried) then Rukun Yamanii the fourth corner of the Kaaba and back to Hjar Aswad, during which prayer is chanted, raised to Allah The Almighty. Although tawaf never gets quiet, periods after Maghrib prayer and after Fajr prayer are two busiest and crowded time.
Finished with circumambulation, we performed two rakaat shalat at/behind Maqam Ibrahim, then drink zamzam water. That completed a tawaf process.
What follows is sa’I, means rapidly walking seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah. This is a re-enactment of Hajar’s frantic search for water. The baby Ishmael cried and hit the ground with his foot (some versions of the story say that an angel scraped his foot or the tip of his wing along the ground), and water miraculously sprang forth. This source of water is today called the Well of Zamzam.
We have just completed 2 walks when Ishaa prayer come so we paused our walk an performed prayer. Afterwards, we continued the remaining walks for another 5 times . The whole umrah rituals completed with cutting and shaving our hair.
The whole 4 nights in Mecca was like a holy break. Our day-to-day activities were spent mainly for religious activities and centered around Masjidi Al Haram. We didn’t miss any single 5 times a day praying together in a congregation, for we believe the reward of praying in Masjid Al Haram is 100,000 times fold than praying in any where else.
For that, staying closer to Haram is really a major advantage. The hotel we stayed is just a 3-minute walk and at the doorstep of King Abdul Aziz Gate reducing travelling time while getting easy access to Haram. One time we woke up late in the morning, Second Prayer Call has been sounded as we heard from our room sound system that is connected to Haram. Imam has started the prayer, yet we managed to catch up. No wonder hotels in this particular area (south of Haram) are pricey. In addition to hotels in Clock Tower Complex such as Movenpick, Rotana, Royal Makkah Palace, and Pullman Zamzam, Hilton and Intercontinental Hotel (the two are standing buildings in themselves) are always in demand.
Our daily schedule normally starts with morning prayer, then have a quick nap before having a breakfast at hotel restaurant that overlooking Haram and Kaaba. Our favorite break time at hotel is usually occupied with enjoying stunning view of haram ad Kabaa.
From our window, we can see Haram and Kabaa, and many granite hills that make up geography of Mecca city. At northern side of Haram another expansion project can also be seen. Northern expansion of the mosque began in August 2011 and is expected to be completed in 1.5 years. So by the time we have another visit next year Insha Allah the expansion will have been completed.
The area of the mosque will be expanded from the current 356,000 m2 to 400,000 m2. A new gate named after King Abdullah will be built together with two new minarets, bringing their total to 11. The cost of the project is $10.6-billion and after completion the mosque will house over 2.5 million worshipers. The mataf (the circumambulation areas around the Kaaba) will also see expansion and all closed spaces will be air-conditioned
Go back to daily schedule, at noon we perform Zuhr prayer then have lunch in one of the many food courts in clock tower complex. We particularly like Malaysian cuisine restaurant in Al Safwa Tower. A simple lunch meal costs us about SAR15 per person.
After a brief break we return to Haram for Ashr prayer. When we finish with all religious duty and supplication we normally do brief walk and people watching on the way home, stock some supplies from Bin Dawood Supermarket, or just simply get back to hotel before return back for Maghrib prayer. Pilgrims from Turkey and Indonesia are the most recognizable ones for they are travelling with groups in easily identified markers. Meanwhile pilgrims from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh normally occupy area in mosque plaza with their groups.
As time between Maghrib and Isha prayer is short we sometimes stay in Haram instead of get back to hotel. Finish with Isha prayer we always have another food hunt for our dinner. With that we conclude our day. This is going for 4 days except for third day when I and my wife went to Jabal Nur in the morning. Oh…. did I mention that our hotel TV did not work (except for one single channel) ad we decided not to turn on the TV for almost entire stay. Good support for holy break!
This holy break looks like simple and easy rituals yet it requires a lot of stamina. Faiq – my older son – got dropped at second day, fortunately recovered the following day, while my wife dropped at last day. Don’t forget your medicine and health supplement supplies and always maintain a good balance of rest and activities.
(Continue Part 2 – Jabal Nur and Jeddah)