The sacred city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, is the geographical and spiritual focal point for all Muslims. It is incumbent on practising Muslims to make the Hajj (mass pilgrimage) journey, which takes place each year in the Islamic month of Dhu’Hijja, to the Ka’ba — the holiest place on earth — at least once in their lives.
The city of Mecca Saudi Arabia is centred round Masjid al-Haram, the largest mosque in the world, first built in the 7th century but many times modified, demolished, rebuilt and extended so that it now accommodates up to 820,000 worshippers. It houses the Ka’ba, a huge, sacred granite box, said to have been built by Ibrahim (Abraham), and the holy Black Stone — believed to have fallen from heaven at the time of Adam and Eve.
The area of the old city immediately around the mosque has been razed in order to widen the streets after several tragic incidents of pilgrims being crushed to death during the Hajj stampede. The houses that remain are mostly closely built two- or three-storeyed dwellings built of local stone, with a few slums where pilgrims too poor to return home have settled. The city is economically dependent on the pilgrim trade. In recent years, it has expanded to accommodate the ever-growing number of visitors (up to 4 million at Hajj) and is now ringed by a freeway with high rise buildings and shopping malls.
There are only two ways to get to see Mecca Saudi Arabia — be a Muslim or risk death. In the 19th century, Sir Richard Burton, the renowned Victorian orientalist, let his curiosity get the better of him and famously slipped into the city disguised as an Afghani. It is not sensible to emulate this feat, unless you can recite the salat (prayers) — road checks ensure that any visitors are legitimate pilgrims.
Inaccessible to non-Muslims. November to February is the pleasantest time of year in Saudi Arabia, for Muslims to make Umrah; or go on Hajj.
Any non-Muslim thinking of traveling anywhere in Saudi Arabia should first find out whether it is currently safe and take note of official advice.