Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
Syrian-Arab Airlines Flight 387 from Damascus to Jiddah was like any other plane ride until the pilot announced that the jet had entered Saudi Arabian air space. That's when most of the male passengers began removing their clothes.Skip to next paragraph
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Off came the suits and ties, the sport shirts and jeans, and the Oriental-style robes. And on went two pieces of white cloth, one wrapped around the waist and knotted with a cord, the other draped over the left shoulder.
''They're hajjis [pilgrims], on their way to Mecca,'' explained a nearby passenger.
As the plane neared Medina - site of the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam's second holiest shrine after the Kaaba in Mecca - a lone pilgrim began to chant. ''Oh God, here I am at your service. You have no partners . . . praise, grace, and property are yours,'' he wailed over and over again. Soon others joined in. Korans popped up everywhere, and the pilgrims began to read aloud from them. When the captain told his passengers to prepare for landing in Jiddah the chanting grew louder, the prayer more intense. At touchdown there was a collective sigh, and someone shouted, ''Allahu akbar!'' (God is great!) The pilgrims then rushed off the plane to join the largest annual mass migration of people in the world, the Hajj.
The Hajj is the fifth of Islam's five articles of faith (the others are belief, prayer, alms-giving, and fasting). Each Muslim at least once during his life - if physically and financially able - must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace. While the Hajj can be made at any time, the appropriate season begins with the start of Dhu al-Hijjah, the final month of Islam's lunar calendar. This year the season began Sept. 18.
More than 2 million people showed up this year, about half from outside the kingdom, according to the Saudi Department of Immigration and Civil Status. For instance, 94,000 pilgrims came from Egypt, 90,000 from Iran, 40,000 from Algeria , and 25,000 all the way from Malaysia. (Fifty-seven countries have Muslim majorities, and there are nearly three-quarters of a billion believers worldwide.)
They arrive in Jiddah mostly by boat and plane, but legends abound of poor hajjis walking great distances or riding animals across the desert to reach Mecca. The story of this Hajj was of the young Moroccan who motorbiked from Casablanca, a journey of nearly 4,000 miles.
Non-Muslims here glimpse little of the hajjis, as they are quickly whisked by bus from Jiddah to Mecca, which, along with other stops on the pilgrimage route, is off limits to those who don't follow Islam. So it's not until five weeks later, when the majority of pilgrims return to Jiddah for their departure home, that the hajjis can be approached in the gigantic Hajj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport.
The terminal, which opened last year, sits at the northern end of the airport - an airport that has grounds larger than Manhattan Island. Giant white pillars support the open-ended fiberglass roof of the Hajj Terminal, making it look like a bunch of umbrellas joined together. The structure is more than two football fields long, and packed inside are upward of 50,000 hajjis, all of whom must arrive and depart from this terminal, which is strictly segregated from the rest of the airport. As chartered jumbo jets sweep in to take away the pilgrims, more hajjis arrive, so that for about a month the terminal is constantly full.
What makes Hajj so special is that for most of the pilgrims, many of whom are poor, it is a long-awaited, hard-earned opportunity.
''I saved for five years to make this trip,'' said Baba al-Hassan Zurac, a photo-supply store owner from Nima, Ghana. ''I doubt I could ever do it again.'' Accompanying Zurac was his 92-year-old grandmother, Fatma, a frail-looking woman who had endured the hardships of a five-week pilgrimage in temperatures that often topped 100 degrees F. ''We helped her make it,'' Zurac said, pointing to a circle of friends, many of whom looked to be past retirement age themselves.
Zurac talked about some of the rituals of the pilgrimage, about the circling of the Kaaba seven times in Mecca. (The Kaaba is a large, black, cube-shaped granite shrine covered in black silk embroidered with Koranic verse. Muslims believe the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael built the original Kaaba.) Pilgrims kiss the black stone set in one corner of the shrine, a stone that Muslim tradition says was brought to earth by the angel Gabriel. Zurac also spoke of the run between the hills Safa and Marwah. Seven times the hajjis run back and forth, to commemorate Hagar's search for water in the desert. There is also a 12-hour vigil on the plain of Arafat, where Muhammad gave his farewell sermon, and trips to Medina and Mina. On the 10th day of the pilgrimage the great feast of the sacrifice (Id al-Adha) begins, during which all hajjis are supposed to sacrifice an animal. (More than 1 million cattle were slaughtered during last year's Hajj, according to statistics compiled by King Abdul Aziz University.)