Tens of thousands of pilgrims circle the Kaaba within the Grand Mosque.
Gazing down at the Grand Mosque from above, one sees a vast, churning sea of people. The thousands upon thousands of pilgrims within the mosque walk in one direction, circling the large black cube of the Kaaba. This is the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Pilgrims circle the Kaaba.
Whatever your beliefs, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sight of this huge crowd. The Hajj is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, and the multitude of voices chanting the words of praise – “In the name of God, God is great, God is great, God is great and praise be to God” – must be overwhelming.
A bird’s eye view of the modern city of Mecca
The history of Mecca and the Kaaba has been the subject of debate among researchers, but according to Muslim Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammed), the destination has been a holy place for around 4,000 years, predating Islam by over two and half millennia. They say that it was here that God ordered the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to abandon his wife and small son in the desert, leaving Hajar (Hagar) and Ismail (Ishmael) alone in the wilderness without food or water.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca
In her frantic search for water for herself and her child, it is said that Hagar ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa until the angel Jibril (Gabriel) touched the earth with either his foot or his wing, and the well of Zamzam sprang forth. Another version of the story says the well sprung from where the baby’s heel scraped the ground.
The Kaaba at night
The hills and the Zamzam Well are important parts of the Hajj pilgrimage, but as the “holiest place in Islam,” the Kaaba is the all-important centrepiece of the trip. It is believed that Ibrahim built the original version of the Kaaba at the site of the Zamzam Well.
A river of people flows between rows of pilgrims.
Originally, pilgrims of different faiths, including pagans, made the pilgrimage to visit the Kaaba. The shrine itself was filled with a variety of idols representing different tribal groups at the time. Then, in 630 CE, a group of Muslims following the Prophet Muhammad made the first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The idols were removed from the Kaaba and it became a place dedicated to Allah (God) alone.
Multitudes in the Grand Mosque as seen from the air
After Prophet Muhammad’s pilgrimage, visiting Mecca became one of the five pillars of Islam. And Muslims who are healthy enough and who can afford it are required to make the trip at least once in their lifetime. For many Muslims, Hajj is a lifelong dream, and the numbers are increasing every year. In 2011 alone, 1,828,195 are reported to have made the journey.
A pilgrim in the white clothes of the Hajj
Hajj takes place every year for five days during the Muslim month of Dhu al-Hijjah. Arabs, Chinese, Africans, Europeans and many others are among the thousands who throng to Mecca at this time. They arrive by air and sea and are met by a fleet of 15,000 buses organized to take them from Jeddah, their port of arrival, to Mecca.
Blue umbrellas provide shelter from the sun and the sprinklers.
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world,” said Malcolm X, who had recently converted to Islam, describing the experience. “They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.”
A pilgrim stands in prayer.
The pilgrims arrive specially dressed for their rituals. Men wear two simple white pieces of cloth, one wrapped around the waist and one over their shoulders. Women are only required to wear modest clothing and scarves, with their faces and hands uncovered. For their accommodation during Hajj, an enormous tent city is erected in Mecca, with kitchens to prepare food and clean water throughout.
The cloth around the Kaaba is called the kiswah.
Waking in their tent city, pilgrims prepare for a day of walking. They set out shortly after dawn to Nimerah Mosque, on the Plain of Arafat, in temperatures as high as 90°F (32°C). Saudi authorities have set up water sprinklers on poles along the way to keep the walkers cool, but ambulances are still often needed for those collapsing from heat exhaustion.
In the beginning, pilgrims circled the Kaaba on the ground, but the massive numbers mean that they now use the upper levels of the mosque as well.
After a day walking, praying and enduring soaring temperatures on the plain, the pilgrims make their way back to Mecca, stopping overnight to sleep on the hard ground at Muzdalifah. On waking the next day, they collect small stones on their way to Mina, where they will throw them at three pillars (or these days, three walls) representing Shaitan (the Devil). Because of the size of the crowd, this is the most dangerous ritual for the pilgrims. Many people have unfortunately been killed and injured in various stampedes at the site.
Each pilgrim throws seven pebbles at the Devil.
Back in Mecca, the pilgrims perform the ritual of circling the Kaaba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction. In earlier times, the worshipers would kiss the Black Stone, which is set into the wall of the shrine on each circuit. However, with the sheer number of pilgrims making the Hajj today, this would be impossible, so they are required only to point towards the stone. After making the necessary number of circuits around the shrine, the pilgrims head towards the hills of Safa and Marwah and to drink from the Zamzam Well. And when this is completed, male pilgrims shave their heads.
Pilgrims in sun and shade
Sacrifice is the next ritual; and in the old days, pilgrims slaughtered (or supervised the slaughter of) an animal themselves. Once again, the huge numbers involved nowadays make this impractical, so instead, pilgrims can buy a voucher that will see butchers sacrifice a sheep in their name – or a cow in the names of seven people. Each year, over 600,000 animals are slaughtered in this way, with their meat distributed to the poor and needy around the world.
15,000 buses are assigned to the pilgrims.
As you might imagine, such a large gathering of people almost inevitably results in unfortunate incidents and difficulties. As mentioned earlier, stampedes have taken the lives of many pilgrims. Fires have also killed visitors in the crowded tent city – prompting the use of fireproof tents. And sadly there have even been cases of violence during the pilgrimage, with bombs and rioting having led to the deaths of around 650 people since 1979.
Once the Hajj is complete, pilgrims leave the city.
Another issue with such large crowds in such close quarters is the spread of infection. Currently, the World Health Organization is concerned about an outbreak of a SARS-like virus in Saudi Arabia. And with the Hajj due to begin, officials worry that the disease could be spread all over the world by visiting pilgrims. However, so far the emphasis has been placed on monitoring the virus, with no travel restrictions being imposed on the region.
Roads awash with pilgrims
There are those who argue that greater measures need to be taken by Saudi Arabian officials to ensure the safety of pilgrims, but the Saudis say they are doing as much as they can, considering the volume of people who attend the Hajj each year. They have, for example, installed cooling sprinklers at Arafat, built air-conditioned tunnels between the hills of Safa and Marwah, effected improvements to the infrastructure, and made vaccinations mandatory before arrival in Mecca.
Pilgrims spend the Hajj in close quarters with people from all over the world.
The government has also imposed restrictions on passports and travel visas, preventing pilgrims from making the Hajj more than the single mandatory time. Those who wish to make the trip more than once have protested, but authorities say it is the only option open in order to keep the numbers down.
A man has his head shaved towards the end of the Hajj
A study conducted by Social Science Research Network reports that the Hajj produces a number of positive benefits for those who attend. Researchers claim that pilgrims return more inclined towards prayer and fasting and less likely to believe in local superstitions. They also say that those who return from the Hajj are more accepting of the education and employment of women. Furthermore, “Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions,” the study states.