The life time dream of every Muslim is to visit Islam’s holiest cities of Makkah and Madinah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And for those who were there a few years ago, they would need a guide if they have to visit the cities again.
Every Muslim who finds himself in Makkah and Madinah naturally feels a sense of safety, fulfilment and experiences spiritual revival. The Ka’abah (House of Allah) at the centre of the Grand Mosque, the Masjid al-Haram, for instance remains the standard compass for all Muslims while every pilgrim either for Hajj (one of the five fillers of Islam) or Umrah (lesser hajj) looks forward to visiting the Al-Masjid Nabawi (the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) in Madinah.
Of recent, these two sacred mosques and the cities that house them are witnessing unprecedented infrastructural expansion amidst increasing number of pilgrims yearning to visit them for spiritual obligations.
This development has posed many challenges to the authorities in the Kingdom, who have continued to evolve various technologies to accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims.
This year (2018), nearly two million pilgrims from all over the world performed hajj, and the number may likely double during the month of Ramadan.
I’ve been to the twin cities of Makkah and Madinah several times but the experience this year was unique because it afforded me the rare opportunity of having first-hand information on what it takes to host millions of people, all of them on spiritual journey, seeking Allah’s blessing and acceptance.
The effort to expand the two mosques was initiated in 2011 by the late King Abdullah and an appreciative progress was made during his lifetime.
And following his demise, his successor, King Salman continued from there, making the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which is the largest mosque in the world a centre of construction. The same could be said with the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah.
The expansion is reportedly a $10 billion effort to increase the mosques capacity to accommodate worshippers, rule out possibility of stampede, reduce the stress pilgrims pass through during their spiritual journey and make the whole exercise a worthy endeavour.
Three of us from Nigeria, myself, Mohammed Ali of NTA and Yusuf Ozi Usman, of Green Berge Reporters, were among the select journalists in the Saudi government’s media team that covered this year’s hajj.
The gesture, one of my greatest surprises in recent times came through a good friend at the Saudi Embassy in Nigeria, Muhammad Sani Aliyu, who acted on an instruction by the kingdom’s new ambassador to Nigeria, Adnan bin Mahmoud Bostaji.
The processes for the trip, including the invitation, visa procurement, and debriefing, among others were without stress. The religious voyage was worth it; all of us journalists that were invited from across the world were given VIP treatment by our host in the holy land, the Ministry of Media.
In the cause of covering the hajj, we had interactions with various personalities, including the Minister of Media, HE Awwad Bin Saleh Alawwad and his deputy. And while some had the opportunity of meeting with the General President of the two holy mosques, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, some of us equally had the rare privilege of meeting with the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud and his son, crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Curiously, during our interactions, all of them were passionate about the power and efficacy of the media in building or destroying nations, in healing wounds, in mediation, and in stabilizing the polity.
For instance, this is what Sheikh Sudais told the visiting journalists, “You have a great responsibility upon you. You represent the pulse of the Muslim nation and its conscience; in a word, you change the public opinion about Islam.
“Allah will ask you on the day of resurrection for every single-word you wrote …The Kingdom’s message is the message of Islam based on mercy, tolerance and co-existence, supporting moderation and harnessing the facts of the times in highlighting the image of civilized Muslims and removing the accusation of terrorism against them,” he said.
The minister of media said over 800 journalists had been invited, while 151 media outlets from around the world covered the hajj exercise and broadcast the Khutba delivered at Arafat, the peak of the Muslim ritual in many languages.
On his part, King Salman said the kingdom will continue to dedicate enough resources for the upkeep of Islam’s sacred places.
The Kingdom also granted some of us the privilege of flying in an Air Force helicopter to see the work being done in various sacred places for the comfort and safety of pilgrims.
At the instance of the Saudi General Security Aviation Command, we boarded a flight which lasted 40-minutes that took round the Arafat, Muzdalifah, Mina and the Holy Mosque of Masjid Al-Haram where hundreds of bridges, underpass, tunnels, railways and dual carriage ways had been completed.
Gen. Khalid who briefed us during aerial view said the Kingdom attaches importance to the safety of pilgrims more than any other thing.
From the skies, we saw Masjid Al-Haram which houses the Ka’aba. The edifice can now accommodate 1.8 million worshippers at a time; while nearly 3 million would be accommodated on completion. The circumambulation (Tawaf) area which hitherto accommodated only about 50,000 pilgrims in an hour now accommodates 107 worshippers.
There are 210 gates and doors that lead to the mosque; more than 250 security cameras and hundreds of air conditioners, restrooms, ablution areas and other conveniences. Skyscrapers that house hotels for pilgrims have sprung up around the grand mosque, with officials saying the plan as encapsulated in the vision 2030 of the Kingdom is to make the whole of Makkah, a pilgrimage city. Already, many residents of the city have been relocated to give way for the expansion.
We also savoured Jabal Rahma (The Mountain of Mercy) where pilgrims besiege to seek Allah’s forgiveness.
Located in the precinct of Arafat, the mountain of mercy is revered because it holds a significant meaning. It was the location where Prophet Adam A.S. and his wife Hauwa’u, reportedly reunited long after they were eased out of paradise.
The Jabal Rahma was also where Prophet Muhammad S.A.W. delivered his final sermon of his final Hajj.
From there, the aircraft hovered with us around the Jamarat in Mina.
Jamarat is where the symbolic stoning of the devil takes place and every pilgrim, male and female must do it for his or her act of worship to be accepted.
During the ritual, pilgrims throw pebbles at three walls (formerly pillars), called Jamarat located in Mina tent city which is situated east of Makkah. Less than two decades ago, the location was the most dangerous aspect of the pilgrimage rites because of stampede while pilgrims struggled to perfect the act. However, the situation has now changed as pilgrims can now do the rituals from four different floors tastefully furnished with air conditioners, cameras and health bays in case of emergencies.
Every pilgrim must pelt the devil in Jamarat within the specified days while living in Mina. It is a symbolic re-enactment of Prophet Ibrahim’s pilgrimage when he stoned three pillars representing how he resisted temptation from the devil to disobey Allah, who directed him to sacrifice his only son, Prophet Ismail.
Prophet Ibrahim passed the test, according to scriptures, when the Almighty directed Angel Jibrin (Gabriel) to take a ram to him for the sacrifice as replacement for his son.
We equally watched the Ghar Hira (Cave of Hira). Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad would retreat and meditate here regularly before he received his first revelations from the angel Jibreel (Gabriel).
It was a pleasing experience and a sight to behold. The cave is 270m (886 ft.) above ground level, and many pilgrims relish taking the 600 steps up to see the 4m by 1Â½m (12 ft. x 5 ft.) enclosure.
Obviously, flying above the skies of Makkah is the greatest honour any individual could have. It was a life time honour done to us by the Kingdom. The only thing one could pray is to have the opportunity of having access to the inner chambers of the Ka’abah.
While every Muslim earnestly prays to have the means to visit Makkah and Madinah, we had the privilege of doing the sacred trip with much ease and comfort.