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Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. As such, it is the most holy city in Islam. It is located in western Saudi Arabia and is a city open only to Muslims. Most religious historians view Islam as having been founded in 622 CE by Mohammed the Prophet (circa 570 to 632 CE) in Mecca, when the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) read the first revelation to Muhammad. (Muhammad and Muhammed are alternate spellings for his name.)

The Saudi government considers it a sacred duty to safeguard two of the greatest shrines of Islam, the holy mosques located in the cities of Mecca and Medina. Travel to Mecca and Medina is forbidden to non-Muslims. Muslims throughout the world turn to Mecca five times a day for prayer.

Followers of Ayatollah Khomeini tried to stir up trouble by disrupting the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, on several occasions during the 1980s, but heavy security controls usually succeeded in preventing major incidents. In July 1987, however, more than 400 people died as a result of a serious riot instigated by thousands of Iranian pilgrims. Khomeini called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to avenge the pilgrims' deaths. Saudi Arabia, in turn, accused Iran of staging the riots to support its demands that Mecca and Medina be internationalized as pan-Islamic cities. Several Saudi Shia were tried and executed for exploding bombs at Saudi oil facilities in 1988, probably as retaliation by Iran and its sympathizers against restrictions on Iranian attendance at the annual pilgrimage after the 1987 riots.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran in connection with two bomb incidents during the 1989 hajj in apparent retaliation for Saudi restrictions against Iranian pilgrims. Sixteen Kuwaiti Shia were executed for these attacks.

Some easing of relations with Iran occurred after Khomeini's death in 1989. During the 1990 pilgrimage, more than 1,400 pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated after they were stampeded in an underground tunnel. The incident, however, was not linked to Iran. Disputes over the size of the Iranian contingent and rules governing their conduct prevented Iranians from participating in the hajj for three years. In 1991 the Saudis accepted a quota of 115,000 Iranian pilgrims and allowed political demonstrations in Mecca. Although peaceful, the demonstrations included strident attacks on the United States and Israel.

The Hajj

The hajj is a duty that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in his or her lifetime, provided the person has the financial means and physical health to do so. During the Hajj, about two million pilgrims from all over the world are concentrated in a relatively small space for a short period of time. The scale of this event, and the very basic living conditions it entails may be overwhelming to some. Housing, food, and sanitation are very basic. Foreign Muslim residents of the Kingdom may perform the Hajj once every five years. Advance approval must be obtained from an immigration office with the approval of the Saudi sponsor.

The time of the pilgrimage is during the final month of the Islamic calendar year or "Dhu Al-Hijjah". When they arrive in the vicinity of Mecca, pilgrims perform a complete ablution: replace their clothing with two white linen cloths, one for their lower body and one for the upper; and abstain from cutting their hair or finger nails from this point until their pilgrimage is completed. In this way each pilgrim is as his brother before the eyes of God, there is no distinction of class, wealth, knowledge, or piety. The pilgrimage takes several days and requires visits to the Ka'bah (the first house of worship built by Abraham) in the center of Mecca; a visit to the hills of Safa and Marwah where, at God's command, Hagar, Abraham's wife, sought water for her son, Ishmael; a visit to the plain of Arafat where Mohammed delivered his farewell sermon; a visit to Mina, an oasis where pilgrims throw stones at three pillars which symbolize Satan and where pilgrims make a ritual sacrifice of a goat or sheep. This feast of the sacrifice, "Eid Al-adha" is the high point of the pilgrimage. Following this, pilgrims may cut their hair and fingernails, and don their ordinary clothing. They must make a final visit to the Ka'bah and their pilgrimage is complete. Those who have completed the Hajj are held in very high esteem among their peers.

All travel plans should be made through a travel agent in order to book accommodations in advance. Hajj and Umrah visas are required and are valid only for travel to the two holy cities. Onward travel to Riyadh or other cities in Saudi Arabia is not permitted.

King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah is a large and modern facility, with a special terminal with facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. However, due to the extremely large number of people arriving, waiting time at the airport upon arrival during the Hajj may be as long as ten hours. Pilgrims should plan on a lengthy wait before leaving the airport on their way to Makkah or Medina. Travelers with only carry-on bags will find baggage transfer at the airport much easier than will those with checked baggage. Some Hajj pilgrims now fly directly to Medina, and proceed to Makkah by road. There is no airport in Makkah.

Before leaving home, travelers should make at least two copies of their passports, including the pages stamped with Saudi visas. One copy should be left with someone at home and one taken with the traveler. Passports are turned over to Saudi officials upon arrival in the Kingdom and will be given back immediately prior to departure. Upon arrival, all pilgrims are issued an identification card or wrist-band. Travelers should carry this identification at all times. Umrah visitors do not receive an identification card or wrist-band.

A money belt or pouch is the best way to carry valuables, and thefts (including passports) have been reported to Consulate General Jeddah by Hajj and Umrah pilgrims at the pilgrimage sites. Upon arrival it is possible to buy what is known as a "Hajj belt," which is somewhat larger than American equivalents. Pilgrims should bring sufficient funds to cover any unforeseen emergencies. If pilgrims need to purchase Saudi Riyals, there is a bank at the Hajj terminal, but it is not continuously open. Exchange and ATM facilities are available in the city of Makkah, but not at the holy sites.

Visitors should check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their travel agent, and a Saudi consulate or embassy regarding recommended or required shots. Cases of Meningicoccal disease or meningitis in Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia are rare. However, during the Hajj season when there is an increased incidence of this disease among those traveling in the vicinity of Makkah and Medina, the Saudi Ministry of Health may require proof of immunization against meningitis.

Tight control is exercised on entry points in respect of pilgrims and "Umra" visitors, and thorough surveillance shall be made in respect of visitors coming from countries infected with diseases subject to the International Health Regulations, in addition to isolation of suspect cases and surveillance of their contacts. Foods carried by visitors and pilgrims are banned and not allowed into the country. Special rules apply for foods imported for commercial purposes.

Travelers should expect extremely crowded conditions during the Hajj. Temperatures in Makkah range between 68 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit in February and March. There are many facilities providing water, public accommodations, and other amenities.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia ended without further incident 26 September 2015, as the death toll from the stampede 24 September 2015 there reached 769. Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said that 934 people were injured in the crush at Mina, on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca. Iranians constitute the largest group of deaths identified so far, 136. Iranian state TV said a former ambassador to Lebanon was among more than 300 Iranians still missing. Tehran accused the Saudis of "crimes" and incompetence, and it vowed to take legal action in international courts.

The Holy Mosque in Makkah

The Holy Mosque in Makkah is the most revered place of worship for Muslims around the world. At the center of the Mosque is the Ka'abah, which literally means 'cube' in Arabic. All Muslims are required to face in the direction of the Ka'abah five times every day when offering their prayers. Muslims believe that the Ka'abah, constructed of stone blocks, was originally built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail. Many believe it was erected on the original site of a sanctuary established by the first Prophet, Adam. Embedded in the corner of the structure is the Black Stone, a meteorite used by Abraham as a foundation stone. This stone, although respected as the only surviving object from the original building, has never been worshipped and has no special sanctity or power.

Over the years, the message of Abraham was forgotten, and the Ka'abah became filled with idols, some say as many as 365 of them. People continued to make the pilgrimage, but it had become an idolatrous business enterprise for the pagan tribe of the Qu'raysh, the residents of the city of Makkah who were the traditional custodians of the Ka'abah.

After the peaceful re-conquest of Makkah in the year 630 AD by Prophet Muhammad, the Ka'abah was purified of the idols in it and the pilgrimage made obligatory for all Muslims at least once in a lifetime, if feasible, and worship returned to that of Allah alone, the one and only God and Creator. At that time, the Holy Mosque consisted of an open circular plaza no larger that 2,000 square meters, located in the center of the city.

Throughout Islamic history, successive Islamic regimes have spared no cost or effort to dignify and honor the Holy Mosque of Makkah. To do so was not only a matter of extreme pride, but was also viewed as the highest and most solemn of responsibilities a ruler has towards Muslim pilgrims. In the year 638, after flash floods had damaged the Holy Mosque, the Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khatab repaired the damage and enclosed the courtyard, extending the area by 500 square meters. His successor Uthman Bin Affan made a further extension in 646, estimated at 1,700 square meters. The Holy Mosque enclosure was once again enlarged in 684 by Abdullah Bin Al-Zubair, increasing the area by 3,300 square meters. In 754, 5,300 square meters were added by Abu Ja'far Al-Mansour.

The successive extensions of Muhammad Al-Mahdi increased the area of the Holy Mosque by 15,000 square meters, and when the Dar Al-Nadhwa was encompassed within the Holy Mosque by Al-Mutadil Al-Abbasi, another 1,300 square meters were added. Finally, in 918 Al-Muqtadri Al-Abassi added a 950-square-meter entrance hall, increasing the area of the Holy Mosque to a total of 30,200 square meters. This size and layout was to be maintained for over one thousand years.

The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, and during his reign a new extension was contemplated. This, however, was only executed after his death, beginning in 1955 with the development of the Masa'a, the sacred track that follows the path that Haggar took between Mount Safa and Mount Marwa. It had always been set apart from the Holy Mosque, out in the open and exposed to the heat, dust and distractions of the city marketplace. The first phase of the project was to enclose the Masa'a and incorporate it into the Holy Mosque complex.

Construction continued over the next twenty years, with surrounding districts of the old city demolished to make way for the expansion of the Holy Mosque, designed as a series of concentric octagons radiating from the existing structure. The Mata'af was cleared of some old pavilions, including the one over the well of Zam-Zam, which was relocated nearby. This meant that when the expansion was finally completed in 1976, 300,000 worshippers could complete their sacred rituals in comfort and with full concentration.

This immense extension, however, was not adequate for the unforeseen numbers of worshippers now coming to Makkah with the momentous changes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in the Muslim world, and a great strain was placed on the Holy Mosque and the surrounding city. To cope with this, an ongoing program of improvements was undertaken by the government, including the replacement of the Mata'af paving with pure white marble to keep it cool to the feet under the most intense heat.

As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz continued the policy of previous Saudi leaders to expand the facilities at the holy sites to facilitate the annual pilgrimage for a greater number of Muslims from around the world: today more than two million pilgrims take part in the annual Hajj. In 1988 he laid the foundation stone for a project designed to double the capacity of the Holy Mosque. It was completed in 1992, expanding the Holy Mosque in Makkah and its surroundings to accommodate more than one million worshippers at any one time. It is for the Ummah, the Islamic Community, that Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques made this magnificent contribution to the architectural legacy of the Holy Mosque, so that believers may worship the Lord in His House in an atmosphere of majesty and beauty.

The prayer area alone was increased by 76,000 square meters, including a basement, ground, and first floors as well as a roof, and designed to accommodate an additional 170,000 worshippers. At the same time a piazza extending from Al-Masa'a was constructed, plus a continuous piazza surrounding the rest of the mosque, covering a combined area of 86,800 square meters and increasing the capacity of the Holy Mosque complex from 300,000 to 700,000 worshippers.

Included in the new extension are two new 89-meter-tall minarets soaring over the new King Fahd Gate. Each is identical to the seven minarets of the existing mosque. In addition, two escalator annexes have been added as well as the extension's centerpiece, three massive domes, each 15 meters in diameter and 30 meters high.

Many new technologies were developed specially for the latest expansion, and from all over the world teams of specialists, engineers, artists and craftsmen assembled to bestow on the House of Allah and its visitors the best that human ingenuity has to offer. Deep excavations were carried out to accommodate a two-level basement area extending beneath the entire extension to house auxiliary prayer space and utilities and services for the Holy Mosque.

A multilevel ablution complex was built adjacent to the piazza to provide worshippers with hygienic and commodious purification facilities, including 1,440 toilets and 1091 ablution units outfitted to the highest standards with fixtures designed to withstand constant use by millions of worshippers, and 162 drinking fountains offering chilled water, transported to the Holy Mosque through an underground service tunnel 450 meters long. Another two-level ablution complex, with 690 toilets, 449 ablution units and 114 drinking fountains, is located in the underpass that connects the prayer area with the street on the eastern side.

An air-conditioning system was installed to cool the new extension. The system is located in a six-story structure set some distance away and containing more than one hundred chiller units with a potential cooling capacity of nearly 38,500 tons. The cool air is pumped through insulated pipes to vents set into the interior columns, with used air sucked out through adjacent vents. The system has the capacity to pump chilled air through the network at an increased pressure in order to push out the hot air entering the Mosque through the open arcades surrounding the Mata'af.

Sudden seasonal rainstorms have perennially afflicted Makkah with devastating desert floods which rush to the bottom of the valley where the Holy Mosque is located. These waters would flood the Holy Mosques and wreak havoc on the surrounding city. The installation of an extensive storm water drainage network has made these floods a thing of the past. This network was further developed during the latest extension by three new storm drainage systems, one crossing beneath the Masa'a piazza, another channeling water away from the new King Fahd Gate, and the third extending 1,175 meters through a 560-meter tunnel to the northwest of the Holy Mosque.

1979 Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba

Some foreign observers thought in 1979 that traditionalism was no longer a strong force in Saudi Arabia. This idea was disproved when at least 500 dissidents invaded and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 20, 1979. The leader of the dissidents, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba, a Sunni, was from one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Abd al Aziz in the early decades of the century, and other family members were among the foremost of the Ikhwan. Juhaiman said that his justification was that the Al Saud had lost its legitimacy through corruption, ostentation, and mindless imitation of the West--virtually an echo of his grandfather's charge in 1921 against Abd al Aziz. Juhaiman's accusations against the Saudi monarchy closely resembled Ayatollah Ruhollah Musaui, Khomeini's diatribes against the shah.

The Saudi leadership was stunned and initially paralyzed by the takeover. The Grand Mosque surrounds the Kaaba, symbol of the oneness of God and believed by Muslims to have been built by the Prophet Abraham. The courtyard is one of the sites where the hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is enacted. Because of the holiness of the place, no non-Muslims may enter the city of Mecca. Furthermore, all holy places come under a special injunction in Islam. It is forbidden to shed blood there or to deface or to pollute them in any way. Despite careful planning on Juhaiman's part, a guard was shot dead by one of the nervous dissidents. Such a desecration is a major violation under Islamic law and merits crucifixion for the convicted offender.

Juhaiman's party included women as well as men, other peninsular Arabs, and a few Egyptians. A score of the dissidents were unemployed graduates of the kingdom's seminary in Medina. They had provisions for the siege they expected as well as extensive supplies of arms.

The government's initial attempts to rout the dissidents were stymied. Before any military move could be authorized, the ulama had to issue a dispensation to allow the bearing of arms in a holy place. When the religious problems were solved by announcement of the ulama's ruling, logistical problems bogged down the efforts of the military and the national guard for several days. Finally, two weeks later the military effort succeeded, and the dissidents were dislodged. All the surviving males were eventually beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.

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