Saudi Arabia and Pilgrims: A century of service

Makkah al-Mukarramah, For centuries, Muslims united by faith from every corner of the earth have converged upon the sacred land of their faith.

Regardless of language, ethnicity, or background, they make this pilgrimage, sometimes at great cost, to reach their ultimate destination: the Grand Mosque of Makkah. This holiest site holds a special place in their hearts and is a meeting point for the pure soul. Here, Muslims stand united, worshipping the One God, their voices raised in supplication, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Throughout history, the responsibility of caring for the Grand Mosque has rested with the faithful. Its revered status necessitates constant attention, expansion (driven by the ever-growing number of pilgrims), and development. This legacy of custodianship continues to this day, ensuring that the Grand Mosque welcomes all who seek its solace and holiness.

The Grand Mosque: A Legacy of Expansion

The Grand Mosque boasts a rich history of expansion, which reflects the evolving nee
ds of Muslim pilgrims throughout the centuries. From its humble beginnings in the Makkah society before Islam, when it measured roughly 1,490 square meters, the mosque witnessed continuous growth.

Dr. Fawaz Al-Dahas, former director of the History of Makkah Center, details these expansions in his book “Hajj Through the Ages”.

The area of the mosque remained relatively unchanged until the era of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq.

Subsequent rulers, including the Abbasid Caliphs Al-Mu’tadid and Al-Muqtadir Billah, undertook further expansions, bringing the total area to an estimated 27,850 square meters before the rise of the Saudi state in 1343 AH.

A New Era of Stewardship: King Abdulaziz and the Grand Mosque

The arrival of King Abdulaziz in Makkah in 1924 (1343 AH) marked a turning point for the Grand Mosque. As chronicled in the book The Past and Present of Hijaz, a new chapter of dedicated care for the holiest site began.

King Abdulaziz himself expressed this commitment in his renowned sermon, documented in a
book titled The Peninsula during the Era of King Abdulaziz: “With Allah’s power and strength, I bring good news that the Grand Mosque is on the path to progress, goodness, security, and comfort. I will do my best to secure the holy land and bring comfort and reassurance to it.”

These words were uttered in an era when the Kingdom and its people became dedicated servants of the Grand Mosque. This period also witnessed a surge in the number of pilgrims. Following King Abdulaziz’s arrival, the number of pilgrims rose from an estimated 90,662 in 1345 AH to 232,971 by 1374 AH, the year after his passing, as detailed in “The Grand Mosque, History and Architecture” by Dr. Fawaz Al-Dahas and Dr. Muhammad Al-Shehri.

Marking a new chapter, the first Saudi expansion of the Grand Mosque commenced in 1375 AH. This ambitious project introduced three floors: the basement, the ground floor, and the first floor. Additionally, the Ma’saa was constructed with two floors, the Mataf (the open area around the Kaaba) was expanded,
and the Zamzam Well was relocated to the basement.

By 1398 AH, the Mataf was further enlarged to its current form. Heat-resistant marble imported from Greece graced the floor, enhancing the worshippers’ comfort. This expansion also involved relocating the pulpit and the makbariyah (a raised platform or tribune in a mosque from where the muezzin chants or repeats in response to the imam’s prayers), expanding the Zamzam Well’s basement with an entrance near the mosque’s edge facing the Ma’saa, installing taps for easier access to drinking water, and encasing the well in a glass basin.

In 1406 AH, the floor included in the first Saudi expansion was paved with cool, heat-resistant marble, further improving thermal comfort.

The dedication to serving pilgrims continued with the laying of the foundation stone for the second Saudi expansion in 1409 AH. Completed in 1411 AH, this phase included vast courtyards surrounding the mosque, paved with cool, heat-resistant marble, illuminated, and furnished for additional
prayer space, particularly during peak seasons. These courtyards covered a staggering 88,000 square meters.

Further enhancements followed, in 1415 AH, the Safa area on the first floor was expanded to improve the flow of pilgrims performing Sa’i, one of the integral rites of Hajj and Umrah, referred to as the ritual of walking back and forth seven times between the two small hills of Safa and Marwa. Three years later, in 1418 AH, Al-Raqubah Bridge was constructed, connecting the roof of the Grand Mosque to Al-Raqubah area, easing access for those entering and exiting the rooftop.

The most significant expansion in the Grand Mosque’s history arrived in 1432 AH. This ambitious project significantly increased the mosque’s capacity to accommodate 1.85 million worshippers. The expansion included tripling the capacity of the Mataf, allowing for 150,000 people to perform Tawaf every hour.

The expansion incorporated advanced sound, lighting, and air conditioning systems.

Following the tradition of his predecessors,
Custodian of Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ushered in a new era of development for the Grand Mosque with the inauguration of five major projects in 1436 AH. These projects included the main expansion building, additional squares, pedestrian tunnels, a central services station, and a new ring road.

The commitment to improvement is reflected in the ever-growing number of pilgrims visiting the holiest site. According to data from the General Authority for Statistics, since the census began in 1390 AH, well over 100 million pilgrims have performed Hajj or Umrah up to the year 1444 AH.

A Kingdom Prepared: Welcoming Pilgrims by Land, Sea, and Air

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia understands the significance of pilgrimage for Muslims worldwide. There is no doubt that serving the Grand Mosque, taking care of it, and serving its visitors is a well-established practice among the rulers of this country. As such, they have devoted all means to ensure that the pilgrims reach the Grand Mosque in all safe
ty and security, as Dr. Abdullah bin Junaidab, chief designer of the two holy mosques projects and academic at King Abdulaziz University, has said.

To achieve this, the Kingdom has invested heavily in a robust and accessible transportation network leading to the Grand Mosque, reflecting a long history of facilitating safe and secure travel for pilgrims.

The challenging geographical landscape of Makkah, with its scattered hills and mountains, historically made building roads difficult. However, the Kingdom’s determination has overcome these obstacles through “several huge projects” that have developed the city and its infrastructure, Dr. Junaidab said.

The modern transportation and logistical services sector provides multiple means of transportation, by air, land, and sea. By air, a network of state-of-the-art airports welcomes international travelers, offering a smooth transition to their spiritual experience. By land, a well-maintained network of highways connects major cities to Makkah, enabling pilgrims
to travel comfortably by car or by bus. By sea, modern ports and efficient means of transportation ensure a seamless transition for pilgrims arriving for their holy journey.

In the Kingdom’s vast and sprawling area, the transport sector provides 10 main routes with modern designs that enable pilgrims from Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, and Oman to easily reach Makkah and Madinah.

A number of well-maintained roads further improve accessibility, including the Riyadh-Taif-Makkah Road, the Makkah-Madinah Road, the Makkah-Jeddah Road, Al-Sail Al-Kabeer Road, and Aqabat Al-Hada Road.

The Royal Commission for Makkah City and the Holy Sites has completed the construction of a comprehensive ring road network designed to improve the flow of traffic for pilgrims and residents alike. This project consists of the First Ring Road, the Second Ring Road, and the northern section of the Third Ring Road.

These new roads significantly reduce travel time to and from the holy sites, by up to 70%. The ri
ng road network contributes to a lower rate of carbon emission in cities, improved urban aesthetics, and more efficient infrastructure services for surrounding neighborhoods.

Saudi Arabia boasts a network of modern airports serving pilgrims and visitors. These include King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, Prince Muhammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah, Taif International Airport, Prince Abdul Mohsen International Airport in Yanbu, King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, and King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, which are all primary gateways for pilgrims arriving by air.

Passenger experience is a top priority. The Kingdom continuously monitors the quality of services offered at airports and strives to improve the pilgrims’ journey through improved performance indicators that measure service effectiveness. Moreover, the Kingdom endeavours to ensure that all service providers comply with all safety and quality standards, including airports, airlines, and related entities.

The first plan
e transporting pilgrims landed in Jeddah in 1936, marking the early use of air travel for Hajj, as reported by Umm Al-Qura newspaper in its issue No. 587.

The transportation sector nowadays provides various services that enhance the Hajj experience, including carts to transport luggage from Jeddah Islamic Port and modern buses for pilgrim transportation. Initiatives like the “leave without luggage” contribute to the overall comfort of the pilgrims.

To further improve transportation for pilgrims utilizing the Haramain High-Speed Railway and the Al-Mashaaer Al-Mugaddassah Metro Line, extensive efforts have been exerted to harness all available resources and technologies. The Saudi Arabia Railways Company has made use of 19 new modern transportation technologies to facilitate seamless pilgrim transportation and create a well-integrated and efficient transportation system.

Furthermore, drones are used to inspect roads and monitor traffic, and thermal technology is used to observe the road network and to automa
tically inspect ferries and bridges. It enables a faster and more comprehensive evaluation of roads, streamlines inspection procedures, and saves time and effort while ensuring accuracy. Drones excel in detecting the condition of roads, contributing to prompt treatment, and enhancing safety levels through thermal scanning. They also help maintain cleanliness and proper road maintenance.

To secure the comfort of pilgrims, cutting-edge road cooling technology has been introduced at the holy sites. This involves coating the surfaces of roads and paths to reduce temperatures and create a cooler climate for pedestrians. By utilizing a white coating and locally manufactured materials with low sunlight absorption, the surface temperature can be reduced by approximately 30 degrees Celsius. This technology increases the cooling level of the surroundings, providing optimal comfort for pilgrims during their journey.

The Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites has implemented several initiatives to improve serv
ices at the holy sites. These include the Kidana Al-Wadi project in Mina, and a dedicated service centre and online platform that simplifies procedures for Hajj service providers. Additionally, a central monitoring and operation centre has been set up to ensure swift resolution of any technical or facility-related issues.

In line with the development of historical and cultural sites, several projects have been implemented, such as the Hira Cultural District, developing the historic site of Ain Zubaidah, improving the Jabal Al-Rahma site in Arafat, improving Miqats and their mosques, incorporating architectural identity into major projects, like the “Rou’a Al Haram” and “Masar Destination”, and the overall enhancement of the visual landscape in the central area.

New Era of Pilgrim Services

Ever since King Abdulaziz unified the country, the two holy mosques have remained a top priority and a cornerstone of government work. This commitment has been carried forward by King Abdulaziz’ sons, including Custodian
of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his grandson HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister. Their unwavering dedication has resulted in significant advancements and continuous care for the two holy mosques.

Under Saudi rule, the Kingdom has transformed the traditional saying “One who goes to Hajj is lost, and one who returns is born anew” into a new reality. Pilgrims are now embraced with open arms, greeted with the utmost warmth, and live in an atmosphere of security and safety.

In 1440 AH, the Saudi government launched the Pilgrim Experience Program as part of the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030. The program aims to increase the Kingdom’s role in serving millions of pilgrims from around the world. It entails a comprehensive analysis of every step of the pilgrims’ journey, from the initial expression of the desire to visit the holy sites to their return home with cherished memories. This demonstrates Saudi leadership’s and people’s commitme
nt to do the utmost to serve pilgrims.

The Pilgrim Experience Program goes beyond facilitating the performance of Hajj rituals. It aims to enrich the overall experience of guests during their stay in the Kingdom. This encompasses various initiatives like the Makkah Route, pilgrim health insurance, “Hajj without luggage”, the Makkah bus project, and transportation services in Madinah.

The program also focuses on improving all services and facilities, ensuring a comfortable and hassle-free experience, and emphasizes cultural immersion, enabling pilgrims to explore and appreciate the rich Islamic heritage and culture of the Kingdom.

It aligns with Saudi Vision 2030 objective of enabling a greater number of Muslims to perform Hajj and Umrah. This is achieved through improved human resources and infrastructure development, with the ultimate aim of preparing the Kingdom to host 15 million pilgrims annually by 2025 and 30 million pilgrims by 2030.

These efforts are consistent with the message of His Royal Highne
ss the Crown Prince who said: “Since its foundation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been blessed with the responsibility of serving and caring for the two holy mosques. They are at the forefront of our priorities, and we spare no effort in ensuring the comfort and tranquillity of the guests who visit these sacred sites. We diligently employ all available resources to fulfil this duty bestowed upon us by Allah Almighty.”

Source: Bahrain News Agency

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