Although we had learnt about the story in school, and had heard it retold time and again over the years, the Prophet's perilous journey as related by our ustaz guide that afternoon took a whole new meaning as we crossed the very same steaming desert in our air-conditioned comfort.
That we were looking at the same bleak landscape as the Prophet and his Companion did during their 10-day trek 1,400 years ago was without a doubt. It was the fact that they soldiered on in great difficulties whilst we were transported with such ease, that made us feel ever so guilty.
Medinah lies 447 kilometres to the north of Makkah, in the region of Hijaz. Our overland journey took about 5 hours with one pitstop for lunch and prayers. Apart from the occasional Bedouin encampments and the odd wadis, there was nothing much to see along the way.
It's one of the three buildings at our halfway stop enroute to Medinah, the other two being a diner where we got down to eat our packed lunch, and a mosque where we performed our Zuhur prayers. The coach was parked next to this lorry (pix below) ferrying goats.
A JEWEL CALLED MEDINAH
After chaotic, cramped Makkah with its narrow roads and winding alleyways and the accompanying din of construction, sedate Medinah, with its ample boulevards and wide open spaces, was a welcome relief.
More than 1,400 years ago Medinah (then known as Yathrib) opened its heart to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw), who was forced to leave Makkah with his meagre band of faithfuls to escape persecution from the Quraisy.
That historical migration in July 622 formed the basis of the Muslim calendar, the Hijrah. The Ansars and Muhajirins of Medinah not only provided refuge to Muhammad (saw) and his followers, but also embraced Islam and helped spread the word.
It goes without saying that I like Medinah. After the hustle and bustle of Makkah, the family was waiting to be seduced by marvellous Medinah. She didn't disappoint. There was a marked degree of calmness here. The serenity was profound.
We arrived in the late afternoon and immediately checked in at Al-Haram Hotel located about 70 metres from Masjid Nabawi, before trekking to the mosque for Maghrib.
I remember this hotel well because it was Tabung Haji's Medinah operation centre during our Hajj two years before. Back then, we were housed in Hotel Dar-As-Salam just 5 minutes walk down the road.
Our room, on the 10th floor, was spacious and comfortable. Best of all, the bathroom sparkled!
That was Joe, sprawled on his bed upon arrival. Poor Joe felt the fatigue of a five-hour road journey across a desert, albeit in an air-conditioned coach.
These umbrella-like structures, a recent addition to Masjid Nabawi, offer a respite from Medinah's afternoon heat. The shade had yet to be built two years ago. In the evening the umbrellas would be closed electronically so congregation could pray under the open sky. Medinah, even at its hottest, wasn't as stifling as Makkah.
Naj in a contemplative mood, while waiting for prayers to begin. The architecture of Masjid Nabawi is simply awesome. This mosque was built in September 622 AD using mud bricks and trunks of palm. Completed 8 months later, its original area was only 1,022 square metres.
It was extended and restored by subsequent rulers of Medinah over the centuries. The biggest renovation and expansion project in the mosque's history took place between 1984-1994 under the current Saudi dynasty. It brought the area to over 200,000 square metres covering two floors.
The female guards (mutaween) however, were very thorough; they tried to frisk each and every female pilgrim for cameras and handphones, thus causing neverending congestion at the mosque's multiple entrances. I still don't understand the conflicting rule applied.
I was caught with a camera that very evening as I entered for Maghrib prayers. In my haste, I had forgotten to remove it from my prayer bag (usually I'd leave it at the hotel before going to the mosque).
The mutaween asked me to leave, so I did the next best thing - I removed the memory card before putting the camera inside my shoebag and placing the bag at the shoe rack outside.
It was either that or pray in the courtyard. There was nothing much else to do but keep faith in Allah swt that the camera would still be there when I was done.
Because our stay in Medinah was quite brief (only two nights), our time was fully occupied, with regular visits to Masjid Nabawi for prayers interspersed with pre-planned ziarah (visits) to places of interest, one of which was to the date plantation (pix below).
Still, we bought a token amount at the plantation (we were told the driver earned a bit of cash if we spent ours). But we saved our real shopping for dates at the market later in the day. Nawwar had a long list of date & preserved fig purchase to make anyway - all those pesanan & kiriman (requests) from so many people.
Mama's girls, dateless for now but happy enough nevertheless, at the date plantation.
Dates, dates and more dates; nougat-covered dates, dates dipped in chocolate, mixed nuts date bars, date candies, plain ordinary dates, super-expensive Ajwa dates (kurma Nabi) of various grades costing between SR40 and SR80 per kilo, Yemeni dates, Maryami dates.. you name it they have it; fresh, frozen, preserved.
Pak Abu and I have a thing for semi-frozen dates; they were so crispy. This pix was taken at Pasar Kurma and the candies above were sold by weight, although one could also find gift-packed ones. Whatever their presentation, in true pasar borong (wholesale market) tradition, these dates were a whole lot cheaper.
Boys will always be boys. Because the signboard clearly says "No Photograph", they must take a photograph there. This picture was taken at Masjid Quba', the oldest mosque in Islamic history. I have no clue why the sign was such; I don't remember seeing anything similar anywhere else in Medinah (or Makkah for that matter), not even in the vicinity of the two great mosques.
This was the second military encounter between the Quraisy of Makkah and the Muslims of Medinah, the first being the Battle of Badr the year before.
The Battle of Uhud became infamous for one reason; the Muslims (who were smaller in numbers from the Quraisy attackers) were in the clutches of victory when their archers breached the Prophet's order and vacated their post up a hill to grab the spoils of war left by a fleeing Quraisy army.
This allowed a surprised attack by a Makkah cavalry; many Muslim warriors died including the Prophet's own uncle Sayyidina Hamzah. The Prophet himself was badly injured, causing a rumour to race through the Muslim camp that he had perished in the battle, thus demoralising the Muslims further, until it was proved otherwise.
Within this fenced area lies the grave of Prophet Muhammad's (saw) uncle, Sayyidina Hamzah and those of many other Syuhadahs who perished in the Battle of Uhud. When I first visited this site two years back, I couldn't hold back my tears. The impact of standing here, on this sacred grounds where the faithfuls died in jihad was too much to take. This time around, I had better control of my emotions, but the feeling of sadness and awe prevailed.This is the hill abandoned by the archers, not to pursue a fleeing army but to collect the spoils of war, with disastrous consequences. The Quraisy claimed victory and returned two years later to engage the Prophet and his men in yet another battle, the Battle of the Trench (Peperangan Khandaq). They were soundly defeated by the Muslims through wit and ingenuity, and that was the last of the wars between them.
Sameer's was not Arab per se; in fact it was a Pakistani restaurant but the food was a mixture of both, so was the clientele. Located in the basement (one had to walk a few steps down), the place may be cramped and dinghy but the lamb, delicious and tender and eaten with plate-sized pita bread, more than made up for it.
The six of us polished off three plates of lamb curry, three plates of chicken curry, 14 pieces of pita bread and two jumbo bottles of coke, and the bill came to SR66. It was worth every riyal.
Nawwar, as usual, still managed to squeeze in some last-minute shopping for jubbahs. Just as in Beijing earlier in the year, she successfully haggled her way to halving the prices offered. If she could wear those Chinese and Arab shopkeepers down, I dont' know what else she could do..
Checking-in. Inside those "Safewrap" plastic bags were containers of zamzam water, given free to all pilgrims (20 litres/pax). Each container was rather heavy; thankfully they weren't considered baggage, thus needed no weighing in.