Not All Pilgrims Go to Mecca: A Guide to Alternative Pilgrimages in the Arab World

Not All Pilgrims Go to Mecca: A Guide to Alternative Pilgrimages in the Arab World

It’s not all about Mecca…

The Middle East has always acted as a spiritual focal point for many of the world’s religions. From Syria in the north, to Yemen in the south, the landscape is dotted with the remains of countless ancient shrines and holy places, sites that once drew thousands of pilgrims from now long-forgotten religious traditions. But pilgrimages in the Arab world are not simply a phenomenon confined to the history books, nor are they limited to the annual Muslim hajj to Mecca, or to Jerusalem for Christians and Jews. Here are ten lesser-known destinations that continue to play an important role in the religious life of believers.

The Tomb of the Prophet Hud, Yemen


In the early Islamic era, the practice of visiting the tombs of pious or learned Muslims became so popular that a man named Al-Harawi – a 13th century forerunner of the modern travel writer – produced a guidebook for aspiring pilgrims. People believed that by visiting these tombs the dead ‘saint’ might intercede on their behalf, and their prayers would more likely be answered as a result.

Although criticized by some as being ‘un-Islamic’, the practice hasn’t died out. One of the ziyarat (visits) mentioned by al-Harawi is the annual visit to the Tomb of the Prophet Hud in the Hadramaut region of Yemen. Hud is the great-great grandson of Noah, and is mentioned in the Qur’an as a prophet. In fact, locals consider him a founding figure of the people of south Arabia. As a result, visiting his grave is seen by Hadramautis as both a religious event, and a way to re-affirm their shared ancestry.

Each year, on the eighth day of the month of Sha’ban, thousands of pilgrims descend on the tomb from neighboring towns, as well as from the wider Hadramauti diaspora across Africa, Europe, and South Asia. During the four day ziyara, pilgrims perform ritual ablutions in a nearby river, before praying beside the prophet’s tomb, and reciting the Quranic sura of Hud.

The Festival of Nabi Musa, Palestine

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Festival of Nabi Musa, Palestine

Another ziyara that has gained significance beyond its original religious dimensions, is the Festival of Nabi Musa (the Prophet Moses), held each spring near Jericho in Palestine. Although it is believed to date back as far as the 12th century, the event grew in popularity as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism under both British and then Israeli occupation. Indeed, the festival became such a potent focal point of the Palestinian struggle, that it has been banned on a number of occasions, first by the British in 1937, then the Jordanians in 1948, and the Israelis in 2001.

In the week leading up to the Orthodox Easter, pilgrims gather in Jerusalem and, after praying at the Al Aqsa mosque, begin their procession to the site of the tomb seven kilometers south-west of Jericho. Because of the restrictions imposed upon it, the festival can no longer attract the crowds it once did, but hundreds of Palestinians continue to mark the event each year.

The Feast of the Assembly, Iraq

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Feast of the Assembly, Iraq

Iraq is famous for being the home of several important shrines in Shiite Islam, but the country also has huge significance for a number of smaller religious groups as well. The Yazidis, for one, are a Kurdish ethno-religious group influenced by Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, and their most important religious sites are located in the Nineveh Province, north of the country.

According to Yazidi belief, once God had created the earth, he left it in the care of seven Holy Beings, incarnated in human form, and known as qass. The tombs of the qass are nestled in the Lalish Valley , northwest of Mosul, and it is here that the Yazidi community congregates each October for the most important occasion in their spiritual calendar. The seven day ‘Feast of the Assembly’ commemorates the coming together of the qass in Lalish, and culminates with the ceremonial sacrifice of a bull, whose flesh is then distributed to the gathered pilgrims.

The Tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, Syria

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, Syria

For centuries, the Iraqi shrines of Karbala and Najaf have acted as the spiritual home of Shiite Islam, but in the aftermath of successive wars in the 1980s and 1990s – with Iraq essentially sealed off to Iranian visitors – the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus has rapidly grown in importance as a pilgrimage destination. The granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and daughter of Ali, Zeinab is revered for performing miracles and answering the prayers of the faithful, especially women.

The shrine is busiest during the months of Muharram and Safar, when Damascus throngs with pilgrims commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, at the annual holidays of Ashura and Arbaeen.

The Hiloula of Amran ben Diwan, Morocco

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Hiloula of Amran ben Diwan, Morocco

For centuries, the biggest center for Jewish pilgrimage in the Middle East after Jerusalem was the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel in Iraq. Since the creation of Israel, Jewish pilgrimages across the Arab world have virtually dried up, but they continue today in parts of North Africa in the form of the Hiloula, the remembrance of famous Jewish rabbis or wise men on the anniversary of their deaths.

Morocco is home to the graves of over a thousand such sages, tzadikkim, the most famous of which is the mausoleum of Amran ben Diwan in the northern town of Ouzzane. Ben Diwan was a celebrated 18th century rabbi who is credited with performing a number of miracles, and each year in September thousands of Jews from Morocco and abroad embark on a five day visit to the rabbi’s tomb, singing hymns and praying to ask for his intercession.

The Tomb of Nabi Shoueb, Palestine

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Tomb of Nabi Shoueb, Palestine

For centuries, the Druze communities of the Levant have visited holy sites across Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The most important of these is the tomb of Nabi Shoueb – the prophet Jethro – in what is now known as northern Israel.

Although the shrine to Shoueb dates back to over eight hundred years, the annual pilgrimage to the site only became a fixed date in the Druze calendar in the late 19th century. Today, the prophet’s life is commemorated each year with a four day holiday beginning on April 25th. The event is important to religious and secular Druze alike, and acts as an opportunity to discuss and resolve issues affecting the community as a whole.

The Tomb of Sayyidna Hatim, Yemen

Pilgrimages of the Arab World - The Tomb of Sayyidna Hatim, Yemen

Pilgrimage sites in the Arab World also carry significance for religious groups based far beyond the confines of the region. The Dawoodi Bohra, a tiny offshoot of the Must’ali branch of Isma’ili Shi’ism, live for the most part in the Gujarat region of India, but the community marks its ancestral heritage with an annual visit to the village of Hutaib, in western Yemen. It is here that the tomb of Sayyidna Hatim, the third spiritual leader or Da’i al-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra is located.

When the Dawoodi Bohra community migrated from Yemen in the sixteenth century, they left behind a small group of co-religionists in Hutaib. The two communities lived in isolation from each other for hundreds of years, before the current Da’i al-Mutlaq institutionalized an annual visit to Yemen, to the shrine of Sayyidna Hatim.

This article was published on 13.08.2013


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