From the pre-Islamic monument of Madain Saleh to the multicoloured coral reefs of the Red Sea, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the size of western Europe. And with a quarter of the world’s known oil deposits, it houses both historic and natural wonders. As the largest Arab state in western Asia, tourism primarily draws people on pilgrimages, with Mecca alone receiving several million pilgrims per year, especially during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah for Hajj. The numbers are quite high during the month of Ramzan. In the recent past, there has been a growth in leisure tourism as well; the Sarawat Mountains, the Hijaz, diving in the Red Sea, and a number of ancient ruins are among the most popular attractions. But nothing compares to the holy city of Mecca.
Nabhan Mahmood and his family visited his sister in Saudi Arabia. They went to Jeddah, Mecca and Medina. Located in the west of Saudi Arabia, Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the spiritual home of Islam. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the religious high points in a Muslim’s life, and the holy mosque is the most sacred shrine to which Muslims around the world turn toward during prayer. On the other hand, Medina is where the prophet spent his last days. It is home to the Prophet’s Mosque and is the second-holiest city in Islam after Mecca.
According to Nabhan, Mecca and Medina are among the few places you can visit without knowing anyone, yet still feel at home. “The peace and serenity are unparalleled, and are only enhanced by the warmth of the people there. At Mecca and Medina, we stayed at the Swissotel and Hilton, respectively, with experiences at both properties being excellent.”
Many worshippers visited Mecca on the first day of Ramzan this year, and huge numbers of tourists from various parts of the world visit throughout the year. “To see millions of people engaged in worship was a moving experience. Mecca is truly the city that never sleeps, with foreign nationals arriving at every hour of day and night,” added Nabhan, whose family also travelled to Jeddah, a port city that has served as a converging point for traders and pilgrims for centuries.
A major tourist attraction, Jeddah is also a commercial centre with major shops, restaurants, government offices, and an entire shopping district. Nabhan adds that Jeddah is a city of fast cars, designer labels, sprawling malls, and a plethora of cafes and beaches. “It is home to every international food chain and has local Arabic, Lebanese and Turkish eateries that are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. If food and shopping rank high on your list of priorities, Jeddah is the ideal place.”
There are many things for the tourist in Jeddah. You can hire a boat and sail the open seas or take walk along the 35-kilometre Corniche. The Red Sea has a lot to offer water enthusiasts: deep sea diving, snorkelling and unexplored marine life. King Fahd Fountain, otherwise known as Jeddah Fountain, jets out water up to 312 metres above the Red Sea, and is the biggest saltwater fountain in the world. A present to the former king, the best time to see the fountain is either at dawn or at night. One can also visit the Floating Mosque, situated right on the Red Sea. It creates the impression of a floating building during high tide. Mecca Gate, one of the oldest places in Saudi Arabia, serves as one of the main entrances for Hajj pilgrims. It’s naturally a busy place at this time of year.
What struck Nabhan most about Saudi Arabia was the honesty of the people and their genuine concern for one another. “In a day and age where security is constantly being bolstered to prevent crime, the people of Saudi Arabia (the jewellers in particular) leave their shops open when attending prayers, because incidents of theft are close to naught. To see retailers in a major city have such confidence in their customers and the people is truly amazing. While Saudi Arabia is truly mesmerising, it’s the nation’s culture and the way of life that I’ll remember most from my trip.” – Rahul