Medina is different to Makkah. It always has been. “They say even if you drop money here, no one will pick it up. They will just leave it so that you can come back and ﬁnd it exactly where it was dropped,” says Saeed Anwar, smiling as we sit together staring up at the geometric patterns that adorn the white ‘palm tree’ pillars in the courtyard of the Prophet’s Mosque.
The sky above is cloudless, revealing thousands of stars. The evening air is cool, as it has been all week. Even the temperature is merciful in Medina.
Saeed is visiting Islam’s second holiest city after performing his umrah in Makkah. He is from India. Like Muslims who come to Saudi Arabia from all over the world for hajj and umrah, we have both combined our ‘lesser hajj’ with a visit to Medina.
Two cities so central to Islam’s genesis story, yet they feel a world apart. Whereas Makkah is loud and noisy, Medina appears quiet and placid. Whereas Makkah feels busy, Medina feels relaxed. It is as if Medina is the yin to Makkah’s yang. Sitting nearly 500km north of his birthplace, Medina is where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) migrated to in the year 622 ce.
The residents of Yathrib – as Medina was known then – joyfully received the religious refugees, greeting them with songs and drums, and clamouring for the honour to host Muhammad (PBUH) in their homes. Wanting to avoid offending anyone, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) let his favourite camel, al-Kaswa, decide. Wherever she would stop, that would be where he lived, and where he would build his mosque.
The spot where al-Kaswa knelt down – originally palm groves owned by two orphans – is where the Prophet’s Mosque stands today, right in the centre of Medina. Beginning as a humble structure made of unbaked bricks, date trunks and palm fronds, the Prophet’s Mosque can now hold a million worshippers during peak hajj season.
It was in this city that the Prophet really established his new community, and it was here that many of the significant moments that defined the new faith took place. This is why the year the Prophet arrived in Medina marks the start of the Islamic calendar. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would never again call Makkah home, dying in Medina in the year 632 ce.
His remains are in the mausoleum under the mosque’s iconic Green Dome, alongside his good friends, such as Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. It is a key site for all visiting pilgrims.
With so many sacred places and monuments, Medina has always been dear to the heart of every pilgrim.
“It’s changed a lot in recent years; many of the historical sites are no more. Some of the changes are good, some bad. But one thing is certain: it is much easier to get to the important sites now,” explains Saeed, as two brown sparrows play on the cool marble floor in front of us. I nod in agreement.
The sparrows take off together. Flying low, they weave confidently in and out of worshippers, safe in the knowledge no one will hurt them here. This is a sanctuary.
An old man in a white sherwani, carrying
a bright yellow pouch, slowly gets to his feet. As he heads towards the black iron gates that never close, he leaves a trail of strong-smelling attar. Passing one of the sleepy expat Bangladeshi cleaners leaning on a broom, his hand meets with theirs in greeting. And, I notice, giving him a few Saudi riyals. Behind us on the main road, another red double-decker tour bus pulls up at the
hop-on, hop-off stop. The hour is late and on the top deck is a familiar sight: a cheek pressed up against the window, eyes closed. In London, this might have been a number 25 bus headed to Oxford Circus. Here, though, the destinations are far more sacred.
In the north, on the outskirts where Mount Uhud looms over the city, the bus stops at the site of a real low point of the Prophet’s reign in Medina, the Battle of Uhud. Later, at stop 9, the Trench Battleﬁeld marks a significant upturn, when 3,000 Muslims defended their city against 10,000 of their enemies, using a trench.
Out towards the west, the bus takes tourists to Masjid al Qiblatain, a reminder that Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem. It was in this very mosque that the revelation to face Makkah was received and the direction of the qiblah changed forever.
Closer to the Prophet’s Mosque, the Bab Al Salaam is where many passengers hop off. It is one of the few remaining gates that used to be part of the original ancient city walls.
Easily the best way to get about, the sightseeing buses also accommodate conventional tourists’ needs, stopping at the glitzy, oval-shaped Al Noor Mall, on the busy King Abdullah ring road.
Stop 3 on the route is Al Manakh Square, where more traditional Medinan shopping can be found. Hidden in and around this busy intersection are stores selling the famous local dates – deemed the finest in all of Arabia.
Fittingly, the bus route begins and ends at the Prophet’s Mosque, where on that fateful day in 622 ce, al-Kaswa the camel settled herself amongst the date palms, and eventually Yathrib became Al Madinah Al Munawarah – the radiant city – and a sanctuary for all Muslims.
Inhale the spiced aroma of traditional Saudi coffee, known as kahwa. Made by grinding together coffee beans, cardamom and cloves, this is the fragrance of classic Arabia, and its whiff has the potential to transport you back to the days of Arabia Felix. Almost every corner of Medina will have somewhere serving this traditional drink, so just follow your nose.