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Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Yasin

Hajj at the height of summer

Nermin Ismail
August 23, 2018

Millions of believers, heat and loud prayers: the hajj in Mecca. Once a year, the Saudi city becomes a pilgrimage hot spot and the site of the largest gathering of people in the world. Nermin Ismail reports from Mecca.


It is sweltering on Mount Arafat: 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). This year the Muslim pilgrimage falls at the height of summer. On the way to the epicenter of the hajj — a good 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southeast of Islam's holiest city Mecca — young Saudi soldiers spray pilgrims with water to cool off. Volunteers distribute drinks, and older people, women and children are always given preferential treatment. I try to pass my bottle to let others have a drink as well, but the woman next to me, from India, refuses. She points to her large, gold-colored water bottle.

Many have come with water, prepared for the long trek under the blazing sun. From time to time, though, you find yourself gasping for breath in this massive crowd. Over and over, I try to get more air by lifting my head up. Believers from all over the world have come for this journey. Some pilgrims have been saving their entire lives to be able to fulfill this religious duty.

At night, they sleep on the warm ground, covering themselves with their thin, colorful prayer mats. For sustenance, they rely on the Saudi food bank workers, who regularly distribute small portions of rice and meat to pilgrims on the road. On the "Day of Arafah" the concentration of pilgrims reaches is highest. Because of the fixed date of the pilgrimage — the second day of the hajj — all of the pilgrims gather together at one site at the same time. This year around 2.7 million made their way to Mecca. At the other sites, they can come on different days so the swells get staggered.

Read more: Islam in Germany: Muslims prefer to be talked to rather than talked about 

Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat
The hajj is considered incomplete without a visit to Mount ArafatImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Al-Rubaye

Hoping for forgiveness on the 'Day of Arafah'

A visit to Jabal al-Rahma, the "Mountain of Mercy" near Mecca, is an obligatory step in satisfying the religious requirements of the hajj. According to legend, the site at the foot of the mountain is called "Arafah" meaning "to be acquainted with." This is where Adam and Eve are said to have met each other again after being driven out of paradise. This is also where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have made his final address to his Muslim followers. In this farewell sermon, he spoke about equality, women's rights and the hajj.

In the relatively short window between sunrise and sunset, all of the pilgrims come together on a 78 square kilometer site. I am standing among them. A group of Indonesian men and women are praying aloud, clinging to their long, white cloths so as not to lose each other in the crowd.

Arriving at the mountain, a woman from Ghana raises her hands towards the heavens. She wears a yellow cloth with the inscription "Ghana Pilgrimage 2018." Tears flow down her cheeks. A group of men stand humbled on the mountain, sweating, praying and crying. According to tradition, God forgives many people on this day. Muslims believe that a hajj is the beginning of a new life; in this moment, all sins are forgiven. And standing at the "Mountain of Mercy" is critical to receive this forgiveness. A group of Egyptian pilgrims exclaim in unison: "Here I am, oh God, here I am!"

the Grand mosque
Mecca's Grand Mosque is the largest in the worldImage: Reuters/Z. Bensemra

Free medical treatment for every pilgrim

Back in Mecca, the view over the massive crowds is also impressive. Following the call to prayer, millions of people flow towards the Grand Mosque. At its center, in a large open courtyard, lies the Kaaba: a large cube covered in a black cloth embroidered with gold. For Muslims, this is the House of God. No matter where in the world, Muslims pray facing in the direction of the Kaaba.

Normal city life is put on hold for the pilgrimage. If the call to prayer sounds before people reach the mosque, they spread out their small travel prayer mats and pray in the street en masse. Emergency doctors, policemen, soldiers, cleaners and escorts are deployed at various points throughout the city. The hospitals in Mecca are also prepared for the large number of pilgrims. No matter what type of medical attention is required — an operation, a hospital stay or medication — pilgrims receive it free-of-charge.

Despite the huge crowds, the security personnel try to regulate the flow of people and keep calm. A steward tries to explain to a small group of Chinese pilgrims that they are not allowed to pray at a certain location. Given the language barrier, it is no easy task. But with skill he steers the group to the right spot. 

The Kaaba
The Kaaba is Islam's most sacred siteImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Yasin

Circling the Kaaba

From a bird's-eye view, it looks like the mass of people, circling the Kaaba seven times counter clockwise, is moving in unison for the "Tawaf" ritual. Down in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, among all the people, it is hard to concentrate on prayer. You feel the warm hands of the person behind you on your back and people stepping on your heels. But it does not seem to bother anyone.

Muslims understand the pilgrimage as a visit to God. In the Quran, the Prophet Ibrahim invites them to visit the house of God at least once in their lifetime, and the hajj fulfils this duty. So they try to treat each other with respect, to march peacefully and to avoid conflicts — but this does not always work out.

Before the communal prayers, certain areas need to be cleared. Two women, however, do not want to leave their places, and they accuse the security people of racism. One of them claims to be an important figure, and that she will not stand for such treatment. The Saudi security explains that this path must be cleared. A heated argument ensues, lasting another 20 minutes. Finally, another pilgrim gives up her spot for the two women.

But as soon as the communal prayer starts, the area around the Kaaba falls silent. In a matter of seconds, the crowd lines up in orderly rows, praying shoulder to shoulder.

Different faces of Mecca

Not far from the mosque stand the Abraj-Al-Bait towers, also known as the Mecca Royal Clock Tower – an assemblage of high-rise buildings, filled with shops and home to many well-known hotels. It is a completely different world. While many outside the complex, who have spent their life savings on this trip, try to make do with as little as possible, other pilgrims shop in the mall — sometimes buying more than they can carry.

Mecca has been a place of trade since its early years. At a fast-food chain in the restaurant's food court, gender segregation makes it clear that Mecca is also bound by Saudi Arabia's restrictive social rules. Even though women and men huddle together as they circle the Kaaba, here they have to wait in separate lines.

Three girls, 8 to 10 years old and clothed in black, wander around the queues, pulling plastic-wrapped prayer beads from their shoulder bags to sell to the pilgrims. This is technically forbidden. Meanwhile, Pakistanis and Bengalis collect the trays and clean the tables. For many workers in the service sector, the hajj is the most important time of year, as they hope to get small donations from the visitors. Many pilgrims can be seen giving their packs of food, money or dates to these migrant workers.

At its most essential, the aim of the hajj is to reflect on one's own life, to break bad habits and to return home changed for the better.

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