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Some two million pilgrims from around the world  gather each year to perform Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah and other holy sites near the city.



Labayk Allahuma Labayk

Labayk. La shareeka laka Labayk.

Innal hamda wannimata laka wal mulk

La shareeka Lak

(Here I am at your service, oh Lord, Here I am. Here I am. No partner do you have. Here I am. Truly, the praise and the favor are yours, and the dominion. No partner do you have.)



These are the words chanted by some two million people from across Saudi Arabia and throughout the world heading, as if pulled by a magnet, to one single spot on Earth. As has happened every year for 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims gather in Makkah to perform rituals based on those conducted by the Prophet Muhammad during his last visit to the city.

Thousands of fireproof, air-conditioned tents in Mina  provide lodging for the pilgrims, and are among the many modern facilities Saudi Arabia has established to ensure a safe and comfortable pilgrimage for the guests of God.

Performing these rituals, known as the Hajj, is the fifth pillar of Islam and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. Undertaking the Hajj at least once is a duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Makkah. The emphasis on financial ability is meant to ensure that a Muslim takes care of his family first. The requirement that a Muslim be healthy and physically capable of undertaking the pilgrimage is intended to exempt those who cannot endure the rigors of extended travel.

The pilgrimage is the religious high point of a Muslim’s life and an event that every Muslim dreams of undertaking. Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year; Hajj, however, is performed during a five-day period from the ninth through the thirteenth of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. This year, the Hajj corresponded to March 15-19.


“And proclaim the Pilgrimage

Among men: they will come

To thee on foot and (mounted)

On every camel,

Lean (on account of journeys)

Through deep and distant

Mountain Highways...

Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Hajj, 4

The vast Plain of Arafat (facing page and top) is covered with tents, eating areas, rest areas, clinics and other facilities that are used only during the Hajj.

In the past, and as late as the early decades of this century, few people were able to “make their way” to Makkah for the pilgrimage. This was because of the hardships encountered, the length of time the journey took and the expense associated with it. Pilgrims coming from the far corners of the Islamic world sometimes dedicated a year or more to the journey, and many perished during it due in part to the lack of facilities on the routes to Makkah and also in the city itself.

Female pilgrims, such as these two sisters  from Indonesia, are required to wear simple clothes that leave their faces and hands uncovered.

The circumstances of the Hajj began to improve during the time of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Major programs were introduced to ensure the security and safety of the pilgrims, as well as their well-being and comfort. Steps were also taken to establish facilities and services aimed at improving housing, health care, sanitation and transportation.

The Mount of Mercy (top and above) is the focal point of the gathering at Arafat, where pilgrims ask for God’s forgiveness for any sins they may have committed during their lives.

Today, though the rituals at the holy sites in and near Makkah have remained unchanged from the time of the Prophet, the setting for the pilgrimage and the facilities available to the pilgrims are a far cry from those that existed at any time in history. Hardship was once expected and endured as part of the pilgrimage, and Muslims who embarked on this undertaking traditionally assigned a relative or trusted member of the community as the executor of their wills in case they did not return from the journey.

Thousands of sprinklers (above) placed atop 30-foot poles produce a mist of water that helps cool the vast crowd of pilgrims as their perform the rituals of the Hajj.

The Mount of Mercy 

 Muslims today undertake the pilgrimage in ease, receive a warm welcome on their arrival in Saudi Arabia, and are provided with the most modern facilities and efficient services possible. Without the distractions that their forebears had to contend with, today’s pilgrims are free to focus solely on the spiritual aspect of the Hajj.

On their way from Muzdalifah, in the far   horizon, to the Mount of Mercy, pilgrims perform noon prayers at Nimerah Mosque (above) in Arafat.


“It is truly amazing,” said Rajeeb Razul, a journalist from the Philippines, as he stood on the roof of the Ministry of Information building near the Nimera Mosque in Arafat watching a column of pilgrims that stretched to Mina almost eight miles in the distance make their way past the mosque toward the Mount of Mercy. “To organize a gathering of humans this large, for housing them, for feeding them and for meeting their every need year after year must be a monumental task,” he observed.

A pilgrim from Central Asia and his son (above) dressed in Ihram, the two seamless pieces of cloth that every male pilgrim wears, and which is meant to erase social and economic distinctions.

Saudi Arabia considers serving the guests of God an honor, and dedicates vast manpower and financial resources to the proper conduct of the pilgrimage. Over the past four decades, it has spent billions of dollars to expand the Holy Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, as well as establishing modern airports, seaports, roads, lodging, and other amenities and services for the pilgrims.

Pilgrims collect pebbles in Muzdalifah which they throw at stone pillars in a symbolic rejection of Satan.

The establishment of these facilities by itself does not ensure a successful Hajj. To do so, the Kingdom has put into place a vast organization supervised by the Supreme Hajj Committee, which reports to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz, who traditionally is in Makkah during the pilgrimage. The committee seeks to coordinate the activities of various government ministries and agencies and prevent redundancy. Each of these organizations assumes responsibility for projects in its sphere of expertise. For example, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance issues special booklets on the rites of the Hajj in many languages for distribution among the pilgrims. The Ministry of Health oversees medical services while the Ministry of Information hosts journalists and members of the media from other countries to cover the pilgrimage, while at the same time arranging for live transmissions of the rituals by satellite throughout the world.

A wide two-story pedestrian walkway stretches for more than a mile to allow two million pilgrims to file past the Jamarat (stoning area) in an orderly fashion.

Planning for each year’s pilgrimage generally starts at the conclusion of the previous one and involves evaluating various programs and, if necessary, introducing steps to improve any service that is deemed below par. Once plans for the next Hajj are approved, they are sent to the appropriate government agency, which immediately sets out to implement them. The progress of these plans is reviewed by the committee throughout the year and, once in place, the project is inspected several weeks before the pilgrimage starts.

Pilgrims collect pebbles in Muzdalifah.



Performing the Hajj is the spiritual apex of a Muslim’s life, one that provides a clear understanding of his relationship with God and his place on Earth. It imparts in a Muslim not only the assurance that he has performed the fifth pillar of Islam by following in the footsteps of the Prophet, but also the realization that he is part of an ummah (nation) that is more than one billion strong and spreads across the globe.

Shielded from the elements, pilgrims perform sa’ay, the running between Safa and Marwa (top) in a climate-controlled environment adjacent to the Holy Mosque in Makkah.

This feeling is brought home upon the pilgrim’s arrival in the Kingdom. Most pilgrims arrive by air, and as their planes taxi toward the impressive Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, they pass jetliners with familiar names, but also ones that bear exotic markings such as “Southern China Airlines” and “Daghestan Airlines” and others from every part of the world.


Hospitals, clinics and ambulances (above) are on call around the clock to provide medical care for the pilgrims. Heat exhaustion accounts for most of the patients treated at the medical facilities.

While waiting to be processed through the arrival hall, the pilgrim begins to shed his identity as he stands amidst a sea of people in Ihram, the two seamless pieces of white cotton that men wear and the simple, generally white, attire that women wear. Here no one can tell a person’s social or economic status, or his national origin based on the clothes he wears. Suddenly the pilgrim is simply, and above all else, a Muslim, and the realization slowly sets in that he is now focusing more than ever on other people’s faces rather than their clothes. These faces represent almost every race or nationality on Earth. As energetic young Saudis move the pilgrims rapidly through customs, he notices Arabs, Indians, Bosnians, Chinese, Spaniards, Africans, Laotians, French, Americans and many others.

Although as many as two million pilgrims are placed in close proximity to each other throughout the rituals of the Hajj, such as these pilgrims on their way to perform the Standing at Arafat, the pilgrimage is marked by absolute tranquility and the absence of any altercations as pilgrims focus on worshipping God and asking for his blessing and forgiveness.

Contact with people from such diverse races and nationalities over the days and weeks spent in the Kingdom engenders in the pilgrims a sense of understanding of and trust in total strangers simply because they are performing the Hajj together.


Before heading toward Makkah, the pilgrims are already dressed in Ihram or may change at Miqat, where special facilities are set up for this purpose. By donning the Ihram, the pilgrim enters a state of spirituality and purity.

Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars to establish a modern network of facilities, such as air-conditioned tents (top) and telecommunication facilities (bellow), to make the Hajj a safe and comfortable experience for pilgrims who come from all over the world.


Telecommunication facilities.

On the way from Jeddah to Makkah along the modern superhighway, pilgrims board one of the fleet of 15,000 buses assigned to the Hajj. This vast concourse of vehicles approaches Mina, some four miles to the northwest of Makkah, where most of the pilgrims are housed in the thousands of air-conditioned tents that stretch to the limits of Mina Valley.

Walking through this vast city that has been established for use for only a few days a year, the pilgrim is struck by the orderliness of the place. Food is prepared in hundreds of kitchens spread throughout Mina and distributed among the tents. Thousands of drinking fountains and wash areas are located throughout the tent city. There are hundreds of medical clinics that supplement the hospitals in Makkah and Arafat. Security personnel and traffic police guide and help pilgrims. Despite the clear signs and numbered rows, some pilgrims, particularly the elderly, tend to get lost and need assistance finding their tents or groups. Banks of telephones are located in all the pilgrimage sites, allowing pilgrims to make direct international calls.

“Enter ye here in Peace and Security,” states a sign on a ship bringing  pilgrims to the Jeddah Islamic Port.


After sunrise on the ninth of the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hajjah, which corresponded to March 15 this year, this vast crowd of nearly two million begins to walk some eight miles to the Plain of Arafat, passing Muzdalifah on the way. Many perform the noon and afternoon prayers at the Nimerah Mosque, a tradition set by the Prophet.


All pilgrims receive a warm welcome, whether they arrive in Saudi Arabia by land, sea or air. Pilgrims are given copies of the Holy Qur’an, booklets printed in a large number of languages containing instructions for the proper performance of the Hajj and other gifts.

Approaching Arafat by midmorning, the pilgrim is amazed to find the vast plain covered by what appears to be a thick fog, even though the temperature hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This optical illusion iscreated by thousands of sprinklers placed atop 30-foot poles and spaced some 50 feet apart, which spread a fine mist of water to provide coolness. Millions of containers of chilled water are distributed from refrigerated trucks located along the pilgrim route.

To ensure a successful Hajj, Minister of Interior Prince Nayef Ibn Abdul Aziz, who is chairman of the Supreme Hajj Committe.

Despite these precautions, the wail of sirens is ever present as hundreds of ambulances pick up pilgrims suffering from heat exhaustion and transport them to special clinics for treatment. The more serious cases are evacuated by helicopter to hospitals.

Makkah Province Governor Prince Abdul Majeed Ibn Abdul Aziz and other officials inspect facilities and services in advance of the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims are required to spend the day in the plain, performing what is called the Standing at Arafat. Here they also visit the Mount of Mercy and ask for God’s forgiveness for any sins committed and for blessings. Facilities have also been set up here to feed the pilgrims and meet any requirement they may have.

Like the Holy Mosque in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque has undergone extensive expansion while retaining its traditional Islamic architecture and design, as reflected in one of its doors.

After the sun has set this river of humanity retraces its steps back toward Makkah, but stops at Muzdalifah until the brightness of day appears on the eastern horizon. Here the pilgrims collect seven pebbles and carry them to Mina. As they arrive in the valley, they trek along a two-level pedestrian walkway some 100-yards wide toward the three stone pillars called the Jamarat, which are meant to represent Satan. The pilgrims are required to cast the pebbles they have collected at the Stone Pillar of Aqabah while praising God, in a symbolic rejection of Satan. As the pilgrims approach along the walkway, they join those already at the pillar and, after hurling their pebbles circle toward the exit ramp in the direction of Makkah. Signs in various major languages direct the crowds along the route.

Although not required as part of the Hajj, many pilgrims also visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.

The pilgrims then walk some four miles along pedestrian walkways to reach Makkah, where they perform the tawaf, circling the Ka’abah in the Holy Mosque seven times counter clockwise. They then perform sa’ay, the running between Safa and Marwa in an enclosed, air-conditioned structure. Male pilgrims are then required to shave their heads, although cutting a lock of hair is acceptable for both men and women.

The green dome covering the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad.

At this point the pilgrims sacrifice an animal, donating its meat to the needy. This year, a total of 637,669 animals were sacrificed in a new facility that processed the meat over three days. Distribution of the meat from this year’s Hajj to the needy in 27 countries began on March 25.

The prayer area adjacent to the tomb and other parts of the old mosque have been painstakingly restored.

The rites of the pilgrimage are now completed. Pilgrims come out of Ihram and wear their normal clothes, but remain at Mina for the Eid Al-Adha, the festival that signals the culmination of the Hajj. Over the next two days, they stone the three pillars in the Jamarat, before performing the Tawaf Al-Wida’, the Farewell Circumambulation of the Ka’abah before their departure from the city.

While not required as part of the Hajj, most pilgrims visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah during their visit to the Kingdom.

Madinah contains many historic mosques dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The Qubah Mosque is a beautiful example of early Islamic architecture and draws many pilgrims, such as these journalists from around the Islamic world.


Throughout the Hajj, the largest annual gathering of people on Earth, the pilgrimage is marked by a total absence of any disagreements or altercations among the pilgrims. Courtesy and helping others are the norm. Peace, serenity and piety pervade the entire pilgrimage and the pilgrims.

The Qiblatain Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the world.

At the conclusion of the Hajj, the pilgrim has a profound feeling of having gone through a life-transforming spiritual experience. He comes away with pride in having successfully performed a ritual dedicated to God and in belonging to a huge family of people that shares the same religious beliefs. And he has acquired a sense of humility, inner calm, brotherhood and strength that lasts a lifetime. {short description of image}


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