A day in the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia
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.