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The pilgrimage to Mecca: The Hajj

The Hajj is the religious highlight of Muslim life. Its order of events is predetermined in detail. With about 2 million pilgrims visiting the holy sites of Mecca within a few days, organizers have their hands full.

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The Kaaba at the Holy Mosque in Mecca

It's hot, it's packed, and it may even be dangerous. Within a few days, about 2 million pilgrims visit the holy sites of Mecca - a logistic feat that makes even the Olympics or the soccer World Cup look like a cakewalk.

Almost simultaneously, millions of pilgrims touch down at the airport in the nearby town of Jeddah. Some 4,000 shuttle buses are in action. Desalination plants are working full blast in order to turn 130 million liters of water from the Red Sea into drinking water. The hungry visitors devour 2 million loaves of bread every day. And all that at temperatures near 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit,) even though it is in the middle of November.

The biggest problem, however, is security

Karte Saudi-Arabien mit Riad Mekka und Dschidda

Saudi Arabia's capital Riad, harbor city Jeddah, and the holy city of Mecca

About 100,000 security forces try to cope with the masses of believers. They watch over a territory that spans 25 kilometers (15 miles) from west to east.

The most dangerous spot is Jamarat Bridge. Until a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of people, moving in different directions, crowded through the very confined space there. Often, there were mass panics with hundreds of people dying. In 2006, almost 400 people died in the turmoil. But today the pilgrims' routes no longer cross there, since the former bridge has been turned into a five-story building with a one-way system on multiple levels, including escape routes. A large part of the planning was done by German engineers.

Despite the strains, the Hajj is mandatory for all pious Muslims who are healthy enough and can afford to go. Why? Because it is one of the five basic duties of Islam, just like fasting during Ramadan, and daily prayers. Those who have already performed the Hajj may call themselves a Hajji.

Pilger Hajj der Muslime nach Mekka muss verschoben werden

The Hajj is one of the basic duties of Islam

The Hajj goes back to the prophet Muhammad who made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 632. It always starts on the same day of the year: the eighth day of the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, the so-called Hijri calendar.

The order of events is predetermined in every detail. The most important stages are:

Day 1

Stage 1: Getting ready

Arriving in Mecca, pilgrims prepare for the Hajj both inwardly and outwardly by entering what is called the "state of consecration." Men put on the pilgrim's garment comprised of two white unlined cloths. From now on, they are not allowed to shave, comb their hair, or cut their hair and nails. Women are not allowed to cover their faces with veils.

Stage 2: The Holy Mosque

Muslime beginnen Pilgerrituale der Hadsch in Mekka BdT

Masses of pilgrims at Mecca's Holy Mosque

After entering the state of consecration, pilgrims head towards the Holy Mosque, the al-Haram mosque. Right in the middle of it, there's the Kaaba. It's a brick-built cube with 12 x 10 meters of floor space; it is 14 meters high. During the pilgrimage season, the Kaaba is decorated with a black curtain made from silk. A Koranic verse is embroidered on it with golden threads. The Kaaba is the geographic center of Islam: Muslims turn towards it when they pray. According to religious tradition, Adam built the Kaaba. It was destroyed by the Flood, but Abraham and his son Ishmael rebuilt it.

In a corner of the Kaaba there is a black stone. Supposedly, Abraham received it as a gift from Archangel Gabriel. The silver-edged stone is as big as a human hand. Experts still argue about whether the stone is a meteorite from outer space or if it's actually made of earthly material such as glass.

Pilgrims walk around the black stone seven times counter- clockwise. Whoever gets close enough to the Kaaba, despite the masses, may kiss it.

Stage 3: Departure to Mina

After having circled the Kaaba seven times, Muslims head towards the nearby town of Mina. There they'll find prepared tents for the pilgrims to spend the night.

Day 2

Saudiarabien Mekka Piler beten beim Sonnenaufgang

The Mountain of Forgiveness

Stage 4: Mount Arafat

Starting from Mina, the journey continues to Mount Arafat, 25 kilometers east of Mecca. It's believed to be a mountain of forgiveness. This stage is among the most emotional parts of the Hajj. Pilgrims spend a whole day praying and contemplating. They ask God for forgiveness for their sins.

Stage 5: Departure to Muzdalifah

In the evening, pilgrims walk to the holy valley of Muzdalifah. Here they collect stones that they will need for the symbolic stoning of the devil during the next stage. Pilgrims also spend their second night there.

Day 3

Stage 6: Return to Mina and stoning of the devil

Hadsch in Mekka Dschamarat Brücke

Aerial picture of Jamarat bridge

Pilgrims return to Mina even before sunrise. They make their way to Jamarat Bridge – with the term "bridge" to be taken loosely. In fact, it's a highly complex five-story building with various ramps and towers. Three pillars stand out of it and symbolize the devil. The pilgrims throw their collected stones from Muzdalifah at the largest of the three pillars. This is how they symbolically stone the devil.

Stage 7: The Feast of Sacrifice

Every pilgrim with enough money to do so buys a sheep or a goat and butchers it on the same day. This means that hundreds of thousands of animals are killed within few hours. Pilgrims donate most of the sacrificed animals to the needy. The Feast of Sacrifice is among the most important Islamic feasts and it is celebrated by believers all around the world.

Stage 8: Lifting the state of consecration

The pilgrims may leave the state of consecration now, by symbolically having their hair cut. Women only have a strand of their hair made shorter. All pilgrims may also put on their everyday clothes again.

Stage 9: Return to Mecca

Once more, the pilgrims return to the Holy Mosque in Mecca and circle the Kaaba seven times.

Saudi-Arabien Muslime Mekka Pilger

The covered walkway between the hills Safa and Marwa

Stage 10: The "Running"

Between the hills Safa and Marwa, pilgrims now walk back and forth seven times. They are thereby reviving a biblical scene of the Old Testament, when Abraham's wife Hagar was desperately looking for water to prevent her son from dying of thirst. Finally an angel came to her help and showed her the way to the rescuing fountain Zamzam.

Stage 11: Return to Mina

All pilgrims return to their tents in Mina.

Day 4 -6

Stage 12: Stoning of the devil in Mina

In the following days, pilgrims stay in Mina and perform other symbolic stonings of the devil.

Stage 13: Farewell to Mecca

To finish the Hajj, pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times for a last time.

Author: Birgit Götz (ds)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn