As you may know from my previous post, I've moved to the Arabian Gulf (sorry Iran, not Persian Gulf) less than a year ago. One of the great blessings of living in this area is the proximity to our holiest cities, Mecca & Madīnah. And so, as soon as visas opened up for Umrah (they remain closed for a period of time after Hajj), my family jumped at the opportunity, packed the kids into our Sequoia, and off we went into Saudi.
The plan was to take a few pit-stops at homes of friends and family residing near Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah. The trip went quite well, walhamdulilah, no major hiccups or problems. The weather was still quite pleasant in the Hijaz, so heat wasn't an issue. We were able to spend 2-3 days in Mecca and a couple in Madīnah. The crowds weren't as light as we were hoping for, but based on my discussions with a couple of Bangladeshi workers in the haram, the crowds weren't on the heavy side either. The workers mentioned that the Iranians were coming in a few days with a contingent of 300-400,000, which would then make for really large crowds… happy to avoid :- )
Some thoughts and points of interest:
- I always imagined the landscape on the drive to be flat and bare, like driving through the Sahara desert. But I was surprised to see quite a bit of variation, even in the colors of the sand. There were tons of rocky hills and rocky terrain. There were even patches of “green desert” with wild vegetation. There were also many huge, inviting farms with large, beautiful trees and herds of animals. Of course, the sight of camel herds (black, white, brown and shades between) is always interesting, coming from a country where camels are only found in the zoo.
- As we started getting closer to the haram, we noticed that Mecca is surrounded by mountains and how the Kaba is located in a valley.
- The Umrah itself was quite quick. And alḥamdulillāh, I was finally able to kiss the black stone, courtesy of Rami's-copyrighted method that he shared with us on MM sometime back. I was so confident about the method that I took two kids with me (10-yr old son, and 11-yr old nephew), which I actually later regretted, as I struggled to keep breathing space for the two. I was glad that I had been working out at the gym for a bit, so I could use all my newly-minted muscles to hold back hundreds of pushing folks :- ) And alḥamdulillāh, I did not push even once. Another warning: do NOT try this with your ihram, unless you want to face the possibility of being really, really embarrassed. Rami did not mention this important disclaimer in the article, so I was really lucky to escape with only losing the top piece, which I was somehow able to pull out from underneath the crowd.
- The drive from Mecca to Madīnah was even more “pretty.” One of the more amazing sights was seeing tons of monkeys in an area where instead of camel-crossing warning signs, there are monkey-crossing warning signs. Excuse my ignorance, not sure what breed these monkeys were or if they were original to this area or imported… if anyone knows (after seeing the photographs), feel free to chime in.
- In Madīnah, we took a little side trip to the Battle of Uhud area. We climbed the archer's hill, where more than 1400 years ago, the Prophet (S) stationed some sahaba to guard, but who ran down to collect the booty. We visualized the Quraysh army, led by Khalid ibn Waleed (RA) coming around the hill to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
- In masjid Nabwi, I had the fortune to spend a couple of hours of the night in the rawdah (the section of the original masjid between the Prophet (S)'s house and his mimbar), pray tahajjud and the witr there, as well as read some Qur'an. Those who have visited the masjid can attest to how busy this section is and indeed it was a blessing to be allowed by Allāh to be in this part of paradise on earth.
- We also went to the Quba masjid, where 2 nawafil earns the reward of umrah. We also stopped at the Qiblatain masjid, imagining how the Prophet (S) was asked to turn from Jerusalem to the Kaba in the middle of ‘aṣr prayer! Amazing!
- On the way back, we stopped in Hufoof (Hassa region) and took a tour of the Qasr Ibrahim, a fort built in 963H (1555) by Ali Ibn Ahmed Ibn Lawand Al-Burayki, the Ottomon Governor of the time. The fort was actually closed to visitors but our request as out-of-town visitors was not turned down by the workers inside. On the way out, the Pathan worker even refused to take a tip for showing us around, quite characteristic of the Pashtun culture.
Some tips for anyone else considering a road-trip from UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, etc.
- Make sure your vehicle is “prepared” for the trip. Especially important are the tires (check air), and just a general inspection.
- Unless you don't care about your car's paint, you need to protect the front portion of your vehicle, as it will be literally sand-blasted as you clock 160 km/h (100 mph). Yes you will routinely drive at high speeds; I had it on cruise-control at 150 I think! To protect the front, you can go to any petrol pump (gas station) in Saudi or some location in your hometown and they can put a coating of fine-sand (yes, sand itself) on the front. Some also use “ferry detergent,” no joke, and that's what I ended up trying (worked fine). The best (more expensive but manageable) protection comes with specifically-designed sprays you can buy at a car accessories shop.
- About the speed limit, it is 120 km/h, however, you'll be in the slow lane if you want to follow it. On average, people drive at 140-150 km/hr. Don't go over 160 unless the area is really deserted. And watch out for cops under camel overpasses (yes, overpasses built specifically for camel crossing, I kid you not). However, the cops are pretty easy-going. Even if you get stopped, make up a good story and more than likely they'll let you go. A trick mentioned by a friend is to speak in English and pretend you don't know a word of Arabic, which will be so frustrating that they'll just tell you to please get lost!
- You should plan to make at least one stop between the Saudi border and Mecca. Riyadh is natural. Dammam is good as well, but that will make two stops (Dammam AND Riyadh). In Riyadh, you can find these nice furnished apartments on the cheap. A 2-3 bedroom flat for 200-400 riyal/night. Our stay on the way back was in Buyootat, which was actually very nice.
- For hotels in Mecca/Madīnah, make reservations for Mecca from your hometown. Where you book depends on your budget. Top of line is Intercontintental (both in Mecca and Madīnah). Hilton is good too. Zamzam in Mecca has a great location, but our stay there wasn't the most memorable. Madīnah hotels are usually much easier to get in. We stayed in “Royal Andalus,” an average suites-only building right on the rear of the masjid Nabwi. It was clean and good enough.
- If you have more questions concerning a potential road-trip for yourself, feel free to email info at muslimmatters dot org, and they'll put you in touch with me.
Of course, the trip was full of other blissful, blessed and enjoyable events, but I have bored you enough, so let me share photos and videos of the trip, so that we can travel back together to the blessed sanctuaries.
There are over 150 photos in this collection, a few of them make for beautiful screen-savers or mobile phone backgrounds… try it!
Behind Maqame Ibrahim for Maghrib Prayer. I had to quickly stop taping as I don't think the policemen appreciated me videotaping the imām!
Prophet's Mosque in the Rawdah Pt 1
Prophet's Mosque in the Rawdah Pt 2
Near the Prophet's Blessed Grave
A Quranic Halaqah in the masjid Nabwi
The Amazing Umbrellas of masjid Nabwi. Taped while they were closing around Ishraq