Medina, Saudi Arabia
Medina, Mohammed’s home in exile and the first seat of the Caliphate under the Rashidun, is the second holiest city in Islam. Located north of Mecca in the western desert of the Arabian Peninsula, Medina has become an all-but-mandatory stopover for Muslims making the overland pilgrimage to or from Mecca. In fact a visit to Medina is usually so closely tied to the pilgrimage to Mecca that almost everyone that visits one will also visit the other. While Mecca boasts the Kaaba, its Black Stone and the Tomb of Ishmael, Medina’s sites are nearly as impressive, and include the Tomb of the Prophet as well as many other shrines associated with the early history of Islam. The Hadj is often concluded by a pilgrimage to the Masjid Al-Nabawi and a visit to the Tomb of Muhammad.
The city of Medina dates back to ancient times, and before the arrival of Islam had significant Arab and Jewish populations. The history of Islamic Medina began in 622 AD, when Muhammad arrived with a handful of followers after fleeing from Mecca. The Prophet received a warm welcome by the people of Medina, who were impressed by his spiritual credentials. Though most residents of Medina did not at first embrace Islam, they did embrace Muhammad, and he quickly rose to a position of leadership within the community. Over the next few years Muhammad consolidated his power in Medina, and little by little the local populace eventually converted. The local Arab tribesman, descendants of Ishmael, generally accepted the new religious regime which differed little from their own traditions.
Throughout the period of Muhammad’s exile in Medina, the Muslims fought numerous battles against the Meccans and other groups who sought to crush the nascent Islamic movement. Islam faced its bleakest hour in 627, when the army of Mecca nearly succeeded in its effort to destroy Muhammad. However, by the end of the decade, the balance of power had shifted. Many of the neighboring tribes had converted to Islam, and Muhammad’s following, and military capability, swelled. In 630 he organized a large force and marched on Mecca. Outnumbered and outmatched, the leaders of Mecca capitulated, and Mecca was taken without a struggle.
After his victory, he cleansed the Kaaba and restored the pure worship of Ishmael’s time. However, while the Muslims venerated Mecca as Islam’s holiest city, Muhammad decided to maintain his capital at the more conveniently located Medina, a major crossroad city which allowed easier access to Persia and Syria. After his death in 632 AD, Mohammed was buried next to his home in Medina. The presence of his tomb there effectively guaranteed Medina’s place as one of Islam’s greatest pilgrimage cities.
For the next thirty years, Medina remained the capital and the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. The four Rashidun, or ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, ruled the Islamic Empire from here, during which time most of the Middle East and North Africa were incorporated into the burgeoning state. Eventually the caliphate grew so large that Medina became strategically inadequate as either a political or military center. In 661, after the death of Ali, the Umayyad dynasty moved the capital to Damascus. Medina has not served as a capital city since. However, this did not stop it from becoming one of the greatest way-stations in Asia. Virtually every pilgrim enroute to Mecca overland passes through Medina, and because of this Medina has always enjoyed flourishing commerce and trade. As with Mecca, Medina’s importance has never waned in almost fourteen centuries, and as transportation and communication has improved, Medina is more visited than ever, especially during the annual Hadj.
The Masjid Al-Nabawi began its existence as a small shrine around the Tomb of Mohammed. The original structure, known as the Green Dome, was built soon after Mohammed’s death. It was later expanded to include Mohammed’s home. Over the ensuing centuries it has grown to massive proportions in order to accommodate the huge flow of pilgrims that visit through every year. Most of the outer buildings, walls and minarets are relatively recent additions built by the Saudis in the 20th century. It is crowned with eight spectacular minarets and dozens of domes. The original Green Dome still stands out against the surrounding white marble at the center of the mosque.
Most of the elements of the original mosque still exist as a tiny enclave at the heart of the present structure, known as the Ar Rawdah An Nabawiyah. This is flanked on one end by Mohammed’s tomb, protected by a green fence, and Mohammed’s pulpit, which actually dates from the Ottoman period. The whole area is guarded by both Saudi soldiers and Wahhabi militia, both to protect the sites and the occasionally overzealous crowds. In addition to Muhammad, two of the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn Al-Khattib, are buried within the precincts of the mosque.
The Masjid Al-Nabawi dominates the center of Medina, approximately 200 miles north of Mecca and 430 miles west of Riyadh. Like Mecca, Medina is absolutely off-limits to non-Muslims. For Muslims, the mosque is open year-round. There is no cost of admission beyond any required or voluntary tithes and donations. Web: www.mecca.net/masjid-al-nabawi-in-madinah (official website).
Although Mecca is the more important of Saudi Arabia’s two holy cities, Medina is home to almost as many sites of interest. Besides the Masjid Al-Nabawi is the Masjid Al-Quba, the mosque founded by the Prophet himself. Next door to the Masjid Al-Nabawi is the Maqbarat Al-Baqi Cemetery, where many prominent early followers of Muhammad are buried. Mount Uhud is to the north of the city, where the Battles of Uhud and The Trench were fought.