Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to step out and look at the sky without seeing a plane. Airplane routes crisscross almost the entire globe, particularly the inhabited parts. However, there are still a few places where you won’t notice any planes flying overhead. One of these is Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The main reason is religious. Authorities designate Mecca as a no-fly zone because planes flying overhead would impact the experience of pilgrims to the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba. Although some rumors circulated that the flight ban was for other reasons, such as a magnetic field, these rumors are false.
Here is everything you need to know about this unusual flight ban.
Why Are Mecca and the Kaaba So Significant?
Before getting into the reasoning behind the flight ban over the city of Mecca, it’s important to grasp the importance of the city in Islam.
Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, with billions of faithful followers. Muslims have to obey the Five Pillars of Islam, which include the Hajj, or a mandatory pilgrimage (if possible), to holy sites in Mecca. Usually, people add on a visit to Medina, a nearby city that is also very holy and part of a flight ban.
The Hajj is a pilgrimage that follows the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad as well as the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail. One of the pinnacles of the Hajj is circling the Kaaba, a black, boxy building that in Islam represents the house of God. It is so sacred that Muslims all over the world face toward the Kaaba when praying.
Why Do Authorities Ban Flying Over Mecca?
Authorities ban airplanes from flying over Mecca because it would degrade the spiritual nature of the site. There are two main arguments behind the reasoning.
One is that the noise and sight of planes in the sky would disturb the pilgrims below. Many people save up for their whole lives to go to Mecca and immerse themselves in the experiences of important figures in Islam. It’s clear why the roar of engines overhead would impact the experience somewhat.
Another reason is that non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca at all. It is thought that people coming just to be tourists would disturb the religious nature of the city. The Saudi authorities have a strict ban on non-Muslims entering the city, and violators will be fined, arrested, and deported.
This ban on non-Muslims entering extends to the sky above Mecca. Thus, passenger aircraft that could be carrying people of all faiths would violate this taboo by flying through Mecca airspace.
Are There Any Exceptions?
Although most aircraft aren’t allowed to fly over Mecca, that doesn’t mean that the ban is total. Some news crews are able to get special permission to fly over the holy city and capture aerial footage of the Hajj, although such permits are rare.
Saudi authorities also recognize the practical need to allow some aircraft to fly over Mecca. During peak Hajj season, the city is home to millions of Muslims, and anything could happen with that many people packed into one place. Pilgrims will not be plagued by the sound of passenger airlines motoring overhead, but they may still hear helicopters used by law enforcement to surveil the scene.
Authorities have had to use this practical exception in the past. For example, in 2006, a building collapsed during a pilgrimage. Although dozens of people sadly died, dozens more were rescued thanks to the quick intervention of search-and-rescue helicopters.
Does the Ban Have Anything to Do with Magnetic Fields?
Some people believe that planes are not allowed to fly over the Kaaba and that Mecca has no airport because the site is “a magnetic center of attraction.” The belief is that the Kaaba is the center of the world, making it the center of gravity and a magnetic field that makes it impossible for anything to fly over the Kaaba, including aircraft and birds.
However, this claim is demonstrably false. First, magnetic fields don’t work that way. The Earth’s center of gravity and center of magnetics is located in the core, several miles below the crust. Magnetic fields do not affect how planes fly, and there hasn’t been one measured in Mecca.
The claim that it is physically impossible to fly over the Kaaba is also false. Passenger planes don’t fly over it due to a legal no-fly zone, not a physical zone that prevents flying. Law enforcement and news helicopters fly over the city, including the Kaaba itself, all the time. Not only do birds fly over the Kaaba, but they also roost on it.
Mecca doesn’t have an airport, but that’s due to practical reasons unrelated to magnets—the city is well-connected with major airports in Jeddah and Riyadh.