Non-Muslims in Mecca
Have you ever felt like you are not wanted? You are a curious traveller, you want to see what the country has to offer but they just aren’t helping you. Well, in Saudi Arabia they do just that. There are very few places that welcome you less. It is a strict Muslim country and it’s their country so they can do what they want but surely if you have got permission to be there then you should be able to see what you want within reason? There are several examples but the holy city of Mecca (Makkah) is just the king of this theme of which I’ll explain below.
In Jeddah there are ancient coral houses, as in houses made out of sea coral but they are not looked after and are hard to find. They should be amazing but they aren’t. You are not supposed to take pictures of basically anything. The mosques are the most ornate and impressive structures in Saudi Arabia but you are not supposed to take any pictures although you can sneak a few from far away with the risk of being thrown in jail for a month or two. Not a pleasant thought. The very impressive Mada’in Saleh in North West Saudi is almost as impressive as the world famous Petra in Jordan but nobody sees it. Mada’in Saleh was cut into the rock by the same people, the Nabateans, but it is forgotten. Why, because the Saudi’s make it nigh on impossible to get there without a lot of patience and phone calls. To cut a long story short there is no tourist industry in Saudi. No tourist in the sightseeing tourist sense. They have huge religious tourism for Mecca and Medina but that is where it ends.
When working Jeddah I planned a trip to Taif which is a few hours away on the other side of the city of Mecca. Taif is in the mountains and the king has a big palace there and used to stay there during the summer to escape the heat of the plains below. With the advent of air conditioning it is not used as much. It also has baboons, wild baboons! I sh!t you not. In Saudi Arabia there are wild baboons, hamadryas baboons living on the switchback road up the mountains to Taif and outside the city itself. They are a big attraction for drivers and cause a few traffic jams. Although every other foreigner I talked to at the time had never been there even though they had been in Saudi months, even years despite it only being a 3hr drive. Despite this I wasn’t spending another weekend in my hotel room so I said feck it and headed off. I was very used to the Saudi way of driving (Extremely crazy. Waay crazier than other Gulf countries or South America) and I was just as bad as them at this stage so that wouldn’t be an issue. So setting out into the unknown I had hoped to visit Mecca. Now I had heard the rumours and read a small bit that if you weren’t a Muslim then you wouldn’t be allowed in the mosque which would be normal procedure in Saudi. Pictures of the Masjid Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca are everywhere in Saudi and it. Is. Massive. Super massive. This is the holiest mosque in Islam and currently occupies 88 acres and construction is underway to increase the capacity to 2.5million people. Yes 2,500,000 people for the Hajj pilgrimage. Considering a big football stadium holds 100,000 this is quite the mosque!
So I knew I wouldn’t make it into the mosque but had hopes of seeing it from the outside. I had also heard less founded rumours of non-Muslims not being allowed in Mecca as the city is holy in Islam but as nobody had bothered leaving Jeddah, nobody could verify this. Even many of my Muslim friends who had been there didn’t know because they didn’t pay any attention. So off on my merry journey I went wondering how would anybody verify that you were Muslim or not. Now being white would be a sign but there are plenty of white Muslims in the world so if I tried to keep a low profile and with my darkening tan maybe I could pass for a Moroccan or something! Surely they couldn’t check everybody as that would be a major operation, they must just have security or something close to the mosque so you can’t get close. Yeah, that must be it.
Oh no, that wasn’t it. They do check everybody. How do they do it? By putting huge checkpoints across the motorways exactly like tolls. And they also put a huge sign over the road to say if you are non-Muslim then get off. It seems crazy but in Saudi anything is possible. You feel very unloved and rejected. Up the ramp I went and onto the ‘Christian bypass’ which brings you 50km out of your way into the desert to bypass the city. The city is the holiest in Islam and hence Mecca is forbidden for non-Muslims, Medina further north also has this restriction. So how do they know that a white dude from Ireland isn’t a closet Muslim? Well firstly if you convert to Islam you need to take a Muslim name, Mohammed, Hamed, Abdullah etc. They are surprisingly few different names in Saudi as they are all named after the prophet or his followers so you end up knowing tens of people with the same name. But I’m sure if I managed to get around that part they would ask a prayer or two which is always in Arabic to trip me up. So with high hopes of seeing the mosque I drove out into the sunset in the desert and onto Taif and its baboons fully rejected from Mecca and once again Saudi’s making life hard.