Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Virtually every pilgrim to Mecca makes a detour to visit the Tent City of Mina and the Hill of Arafat. These are mandatory stops for those pilgrims making the official Hajj, and important ceremonies and traditions take place at both of these locations. Both places played a small but important role in the early history of Islam. The Hill of Arafat is the site where the Prophet Muhammad made his final farewell sermon to his followers in Mecca. According to tradition, Mina is the location where the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael threw stones at the devil, an act symbolically recreated by hundreds of thousands of visiting pilgrims every year. Mina is also famous for its Tent City, where endless rows of tents can be found which are used to house the countless pilgrims who come to Mecca every year.
The tradition of Mina began in ancient times, when the Patriarch Abraham journeyed to Mecca to visit his wife and son. As the story goes, the day when Abraham was to sacrifice his son was imminent. The devil himself appeared in an effort to forestall Abraham, and tempted him with great rewards if he would turn away from God’s command. However, the Archangel Gabriel intervened, and instructed Abraham to drive off the devil by throwing stones at him. The Patriarch did this three times, each time casting seven stones at his adversary. Eventually the devil fled, thereby freeing Abraham to follow God’s instructions. Many years later, on his final pilgrimage to the Kaaba, the Prophet Muhammad commemorated the event by throwing stones at the spot where the devil had stood.
In the year 632 AD, the Prophet Muhammad made his final pilgrimage to the Holy Kaaba in Mecca. As part of this last spiritual journey, Muhammad spent several days in the hills east of Mecca with his companions and received many followers who wished to pay their respects. According to tradition, over a hundred thousand Muslims assembled beneath the Hill of Arafat to hear the Prophet deliver his final Sermon. Aided by Rabah ibn Umayya, whose powerful voice repeated the Prophet’s words so that they could be heard by the entire crowd, Muhammad exhorted his followers to live justly and revealed to them the final verse of the Qu’ran.
Muhammad’s final pilgrimage to the Kaaba and neighboring areas was adopted by his followers as the official practice of the Hajj. Thus visits to both Mina and Arafat are considered to be integral to any pilgrimage to Mecca. Pilgrims spend much of the second day of the Hajj at Arafat where they will pray and reflect on the Prophet’s last sermon. Some will stay the night there. The majority of pilgrims to Mecca stay in the Tent City of Mina for the duration of the visit and retire there most nights. On the evening of the second day, after praying in Arafat, pilgrims go to nearby Muzdalifah where they collect pebbles and pray. These pebbles are for use on the fourth day when pilgrims ritually stone the Jamrahs, the three stone markers which represent the devil.
By visiting Mina and Arafat in addition to the Great Mosque, pilgrims honor the Muhammad’s final visit and his last instructions. Subsequently millions of Muslims visit these places every year, mostly in a very short span of time, the second week of Dhu Al-Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, which varies from year to year. Unfortunately, the huge crowds that arive during this period have caused significant problems in the past, especially at Mina. Nearly two and a half thousand people have died on the Hajj since 1990 alone, virtually all in Mina, with most incidents related to the stoning ritual at the Jamarat Bridge. Despite these problems millions still make the visit to Mina and Arafat every year, while the Saudi government does their best to improve safety and security.
Mina is less a city and more a great encampment in the suburbs east of Mecca. Built and maintained by the Saudi government, it consists of row upon row of identical white tents that sprawl across more than a thousand acres. This egalitarian arrangement helps to bolster the feeling of solidarity between Muslims from all points of the globe and all walks of life. The most important site in the Tent City is the Jamaraat Bridge. This bridge stands over the Three Jamrahs, large stone pillars which represent the devil. It enables many pilgrims to take part in the stoning ritual simultaneously. The old bridge was recently demolished and replaced with a massive new one with a wider span and multiple levels in an effort to alleviate future problems with stampeding and rioting during the Hajj.
The Hill of Arafat, also known as the Mountain of Mercy, is a little farther east of Mecca. Though it only reaches 230 feet in height, it looms much taller in the hearts of faithful Muslims. Arafat makes a spectacular backdrop against the surrounding plain, which stretches out westwards towards Mina. The Plain of Arafat also has a smaller tent city for those pilgrims who wish to spend the night there in vigil.
Mina and Arafat are located three and five miles east of Mecca respectively, approximately 460 miles west of Riyadh. Visiting these places during the Hajj is strictly ritualized. At other times they are more or less open sites, though subject to strict regulations of the local authorities. There is no cost for admission. Web: http://sauditourism.sa/en (official tourism website of Saudi Arabia)
The main site in Mecca, of course, is the Masjid Al-Haram. However, there are several non-mandatory sites in Mecca that many visitors to the city go and see. These include the Cave of Hira and the Jannatul Mualla Cemetery. Just outside of Mecca is the city of Taif and the Masjid Abdullah ibn Abbas. One of the Prophet’s cousins, and one of his earliest converts, is buried there.