Live streaming views of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia that is closed to virtually all non-Muslim visitors, are playing online, depicting pilgrims' visits for the holy month of Ramadan. The video shows the faithful performing prayers and circumambulation around the Kaaba, the sacred cube at the mosque's center.
The sounds and images are featured in Google's new Ramadan hub, using the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information's YouTube channel. The Google hub also seeks to connect Muslims who are celebrating the month-long holiday of daytime fasting and the nightly meals.
"This year, as families around the world celebrate Ramadan, we have some tips on how you can more easily keep in touch and share moments with the people you care about," Google says, in a blog post written by Hadi Raad, the company's head of marketing in the region.
Many users of Google Plus and Twitter are using the tags #Ramadan and #breakingfast to share their thoughts about the Muslim holy month, which runs from July 8 to August 7.
As the Middle East's Gulf News reports, Google is also offering "Hangouts with celebrity chefs from around the world. And it also shows the best commute routes home at the end of the day."
The restrictions on travel to Mecca are enforced in part by Saudi Arabia's practice of granting visa requests only to people who are visiting either for business or to see a Saudi citizen. But that doesn't mean non-Muslims don't ask about visiting Mecca.
Answering one such question on the On Islam blog, religion scholar Idris Tawfiq explains it this way:
"Saudi Arabia does not promote itself as a tourist destination, since you will find there none of the things which most tourists are looking for on a holiday. The holy city of Makkah, as we will discuss later, is not a place for tourism, but for Muslims to bow down in worship to their Creator."
Tawfiq adds that when he first visited Mecca, he encountered "numerous checkpoints" outside the city, "where visitors were asked to show their passports and proof of their Muslim status."
And he says that for many Muslims, the experience of seeing the Kaaba is a powerful one — and that it's made more intense by a sense of intimacy and fellowship that comes with being surrounded by other believers.