It is said in the Hadith that during Ramadan, a pilgrimage to the Kaaba is the equivalent of going on Hajj with the Prophet (PBUH) himself.
Written and photographed by Dominika Maslikowski
It’s a spiritual trip of a lifetime and the dream of millions of Muslims to go to the holy city of Mecca during Ramadan. Unlike Hajj, the Umrah is not obligatory but it holds special blessings for pilgrims who make the faith-inspiring journey during the holy month. Many Egyptians performing Umrah during Ramadan book their trips months in advance, and now is the time to prepare for the spiritual and practical necessities.
During Umrah, the pilgrim enters a state of spiritual purification called ihram, then goes to Masjid Al-Haram or the Grand Mosque in Mecca. He or she circles the Kaaba seven times, rapidly walks seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah and then finishes by shaving or clipping their hair. Before embarking on their trip, pilgrims spend weeks preparing their spirits and taking care of more mundane tasks like figuring out what to pack.
Some 100,000 to 120,000 Egyptian pilgrims are expected to go on Umrah during Ramadan, officials from the Economic Chamber of Tourism Companies (ECTC) told local media. Despite the scares over the spread of the deadly MERS virus, the officials said they don’t expect the concerns to impact the number of Egyptian pilgrims during Ramadan.
The MERS virus causes respiratory disease and has claimed the lives of at least 249 people since it broke out in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s health ministry is advising would-be pilgrims over the age of 65, children under 15 and those suffering from chronic heart or chest disease to avoid Saudi Arabia, where millions are expected to converge from all over the world for Ramadan.
The ECTC has also issued educational materials for travelers about MERS symptoms, and about preventing infections by wearing medical masks, caring for personal hygiene and using disinfectants. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement in mid-June that the rise in cases doesn’t constitute a global emergency, and that an April upsurge in Saudi Arabian cases has now decreased. There were no travel restrictions recommended, but the WHO added “the situation continues to be of concern, especially given the anticipated increase in travel to Saudi Arabia” related to Umrah, Ramadan and Hajj. The WHO warned that high-risk travelers like people with diabetes, renal failure or chronic lung disease should avoid contact with animals, especially camels, and should wash their hands regularly.
Others say that Ramadan might bring even more Umrah pilgrims this year. Reports in local Saudi media say more pilgrims are eager to make the trip, because the Saudi government last year reduced visa quotas by 20 percent because of the ongoing mosque expansion project at Masjid Al-Haram. “There is an unprecedented increase in the number of foreigners coming for Umrah this year,” said the Saudi newspaper Arab News on June 16, saying the increase may be attributed to the reduced number of Hajj pilgrims.
The controversial $21-billion project, set to be completed in 2020, will increase the mosque’s capacity to up to 2 million worshipers. While it has impressed many Muslims, it has also enraged others who say the construction puts Islamic heritage at risk as historic sites are destroyed for the sake of shopping centers and towering hotels.
For many Egyptians going on Umrah for the first time, or for those going back on Umrah after several years, the Masjid Al-Haram may surprise with the sheer scale of its new extension. The new, raised circular walkway going around the Kaaba and supported by pillars is already up, adding 3,000 square meters of space for the disabled or elderly to circle around what the Quran says is the center of the Earth. The sheer scale of the mosque, and the ongoing construction, has reportedly caused some pilgrims to get lost amid the walkways and columns.
In February, Arab News reported that some pilgrims at that time were praying or performing Umrah rituals in the wrong direction because they were unable to see the Kaaba, while others complained of being ripped off by taxi drivers during peak times. Some women were charging pilgrims money to reserve them a spot to pray near the Kaaba amid the crowds, reported the Saudi Gazette in February, adding that mosque guides said such practices were not allowed inside the mosque.
Reading up on the mosque, looking up videos and maps of the area, or setting up meeting points to gather if anyone in the group gets separated, is a good way to prepare and keep from getting lost in the crowd.
Like any type of trip, the cost of an Umrah package can vary widely depending on type of transportation, accommodation, amenities and how many days are spent in Mecca and in Medina. Ehab Kamal, manager at Mahrusa Travel Agent for Umrah and Hajj, says prices for food and other necessities in Saudi Arabia are nearly the same as in Egypt, and recommends that pilgrims budget about LE 300 (around 150 Saudi riyals) as pocket money for each day of their trip. Those planning to make the journey should think both about the practical and spiritual sides of it, he says.
“We always mention it’s very crowded so be careful in everything — the crowds, the heat, sun stroke. Try to cool your body as much as you can,” Kamal says. “You need to read very well about the history of Islam and the biography of the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH]. You need to read about the steps of Umrah and the processes, and you need to read about Masjid Al-Haram.”
Blogger Abu Ibrahim shares pointers from his experiences of going on Umrah: Make a copy of your passport and important documents and email them to yourself so you’ve got access to them if something goes awry, and go with good company who’ll encourage you to pray and do extra tawaf (circumambulations around the Kaaba), he writes on his blog Muslim Matters in March. Remember simple rules like not using scented soap when in ihram, or practical tips (for men) like bringing moisturizer to keep legs from chafing while wearing the white robe in ihram.
“Talk with people. Ask them where they are from. I met people from countries I never expected to meet people from. […] Mecca and Madinah are places of gathering for people from all over the world. Have you ever met people from Azerbaijan or Mauritius? Become enlightened on the beautiful brotherhood/sisterhood of our amazing faith,” Abu Ibrahim writes. “Make dua [supplications to God] for yourself, for others, for the entire Ummah. You are blessed with being in such a spiritual place. Take advantage of that beautiful spiritual high and make lots and lots of dua.” et
EgyptAir (egyptair.com) and Saudia airlines (saudiairlines.com) offer daily, non-stop flights from Cairo to Jeddah. The Jeddah, Madinah and Yanbu airports are the only authorized ports of entry for Umrah visa holders.
Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, are GMT+3, one hour ahead of Egypt during Ramadan.
PREPARING FOR UMRAH
Ministry of Hajj, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: www.hajinformation.com
Guide to Holy Umrah, a downloadable slideshow: slideshare.net/tanveerpadder5/final-umrah-step-by-step
Handbook of Hajj and Umrah (pdf format): hajjumrahguide.com/handbook.pdf