A day in the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia

Sunday 15/01/2017
The architecture of the Old Hejaz Railway Station in Madinah evokes the designs popularised during the Ottoman Empire. (Rob L. Wagner)

Medina - The holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia is a must-see destination for eve­ry visitor who joyously treks to the Prophet’s Mosque for prayers but its other attractions are often bypassed.
Medina is a city of about 1 mil­lion people, relatively small com­pared to the Saudi cities of Jeddah and Riyadh, but it has a village vibe. The pace slows. It is a city where people take their time.
Driving north into the city on the main highway in the evening, new­comers are first surprised to see the mountainsides lit up by huge lamps. It is an eerie feeling, giving Medina a bit of mystery but also giving it character. It emphasises that Medina is not just a desert city but one with high mountain rang­es, deep wadis and a sense of time­lessness that conjures the past.
Guide Ibrahim Alyenbaawi is a third-generation Medina resident who laments the city’s dwindling date farming industry but excit­edly discusses the history of its many mosques. For Alyenbaawi, visitors need to touch base with the city’s historically significant mosques that often are lost in the shadow of the Proph­et’s Mosque, also called Al Masjid an Nabawi.
Like many Medinans, Alyenbaawi alternates between the important mosques to pray.
“Medina is such a small place compared to Jeddah or Riyadh that it’s easy to go from one mosque to another just to change the rou­tine,” Alyenbaawi said.
Considered probably the most important mosque aside from Al-Masjid an-Nabawi is the Quba Mosque on the edge of the city. It is one of the oldest mosques in the world and it is believed that Proph­et Mohammad laid its first stones.
The neighbourhood surround­ing Quba mosque is always crowd­ed with tour buses off-loading the faithful for prayers while vendors jockey for spots to sell prayer mats, subha and refreshments.
Also historically significant is the Masjid Qiblatain, or the Masjid of Two Qiblas, which is where the Prophet received the command to change the direc­tion of the Qibla from Je­rusalem to Mecca. Masjid Qiblatain is less crowded than Quba and the walkways lead­ing to the entrance of the mosque are nicely shaded with leafy palm trees.
Once religious obligations are completed, there are several family-oriented attractions that provide the small village experi­ence that Medinans love so dearly: Mount Uhud, the Al Medina Mu­seum at the Al-Hejaz Railway sta­tion, the Old Bazaar and King Fahd Park in the southern portion of the city.
The 1,075-metre Mount Uhud, just north of the city, is where the second battle was fought between Muslims and the non-believers of Mecca in 625. In addition to the battlefield site is the Grave of Hamza bin Abdul-Muttalib, the un­cle and companion of the Prophet.
But the crown jewel of Medina’s tourist attractions is perhaps Al Medina Museum at the Al-Hejaz Railway station in the centre of the city. Exquisitely restored to its original splendour, the station dis­plays Ottoman empire archi­tecture in all its glory.
The massive railway sta­tion houses 14 halls that show Medina’s history and envi­ronment during the time of the Prophet and an exami­nation of the lives of Mu­hammad’s wives, sons and daugh­ters. Outside are restored loco­motives and freight cars from the Hejaz railway line that ran from Damascus south to Medina to bring Haj pilgrims to Mecca. The line, though intended to continue to Mecca, was never completed due to the outbreak of the first world war.
The museum and station are surrounded by a tall wall and ac­cess is found on the east side of the sprawling property. “There is hardly anyone ever here,” Alyen­baawi said. “The best part of visit­ing here is that you have the whole place to yourself.”
But if you want crowds and the hustle and bustle of the city, along with bargaining over trinkets, then the Old Bazaar may be your preference. It is a maze of shops, booths and tables that offer any­thing from cheap sunglasses, to stereo systems, to authentic Arab clothing, jewellery and oud. The marketplace leads to the Prophet’s Mosque and lends flavour to all that is Arab. Just about everything with a price tag is negotiable.
At the end of a long day, the best part of the trip is to visit King Fahd Park in the Al-Hadigah district. The park is open until 1am during the week and 2am on weekends. Visi­tors can sit Saudi-style on the grass with a blanket, portable barbecue and plenty of drinks in a cooler for a late evening supper.
On the edge of the park is a re­cently built souk that evokes the marketplaces of yesterday. It specialises in shops offering any­thing from vintage jewellery to ice cream. If visitors find the jewellery not to their taste, they can visit the shop in the centre of the souk that refurbishes and sells old washing machines.