Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Wrapped in the ihram, a simple white, seamless garment similar to a light beach towel, Muslims from all over the world are landing at Jiddah's massive Haj air terminal for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Every year during the Muslim month of Dhu al Hijjah, 1.5 to 2 million Muslim faithful descend on this country of roughly 5 million to perform the pilgrimage, an exact ritual set down by Muhammad almost 1,400 years ago.
The Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the five pillars of Islam, a religion encompassing more than 800 million adherents around the world. The holy city of Mecca becomes an immense caldron of humanity.
During the pilgrimage the entire government of Saudi Arabia closes down for a 10-day period and most non-Muslims attempt to leave the country on vacation.
The Haj dates to a period when Arabia was pagan during the time of Abraham - considered the father of all Muslims. Muslims believe that the foundations of the Ka'bah, the simple stone structure covered in an intricately embroidered drape that stands in the center of the courtyard of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, were laid by Abraham as the house of the one, true God.
Through the centuries the site remained one of pilgrimage, but the pilgrims were from various sects that had deviated from the monotheism of Abraham. It was Muhammad who, in 628, wrested the Ka'bah from the control of the merchants of Mecca, who made their living selling artifacts of the supernatural to the pagans. The Ka'bah was once again returned to its sacred place.
Today, for the Muslim, the Haj is a profound statement of devotion to God, a rejection of sin, and a celebration of the brotherhood of all Muslims.
The Haj is also a marvel of logistics and endurance. The pilgrims are accommodated in everything from luxury hotels to tents. During most of the time of the Haj, all 2 million pilgrims are congregated within a sacred area that radiates outward from the Grand Mosque in Mecca from three to 18 miles. The Plain of Arafat, east of Mecca, is a sea of white tents. Food and water must be made available. Medical services and sanitation facilities must be maintained. And the maze of traffic must be kept under some control.
The hajjis, or pilgrims, have to be transported - most en masse - on a 120 -mile, six-day trip from Jiddah airport to the holy sites and back again.
To complicate matters, most of the hajjis are making their first trip out of their native land. Although kings, presidents, wealthy businessmen, and religious scholars are among the pilgrims, most are simple people who have saved all of their lives to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. They pour off the planes and boats knowing no language but their own and with no experience in international travel.
To ease the confusion, groups are organized by language and assigned guides who stay with them throughout the Haj. The guides instruct the pilgrims in the proper performance of the religious rituals.
To ensure that the pilgrim has enough money to support himself, Saudi Arabia requires that a fee of $144 to $201 be paid at its embassy in the country of embarkation before a Haj visa to Saudi Arabia is issued. Tour companies operating out of Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries with large Muslim populations provide total package tours.
But some pilgrims still come as they did in the past with prayer rugs, beads, or other crafts to sell along the way to help finance their trip. Excursions to the Haj camps used to be treasure hunts for expatriates working in Saudi Arabia. The rug market, in particular, has been expropriated by Saudi merchants who move their shops from the city souks (markets) to the Haj camps.
The large number of pilgrims now coming to Saudi Arabia is a result of the advent of air travel. It has revolutionized the Haj since the 1950s.
In past centuries, the trip was made by ship, horse, camel, or on foot. Some who left for Mecca as children returned as adults. Many who left their homes never returned.
The first convenience built for pilgrims was the Hijaz railroad from Damascus to Mecca. Unfortunately, before it could be used, World War I intervened and the rail line was destroyed by the Arab guerrillas of T.E. Lawrence. It has never been rebuilt.
Even a few years ago thousands of pilgrims came by car. But with the instability in the Gulf fueled by the Iraq-Iran war, border crossings are more closely controlled. Most hajjis now come by air into Jiddah, where visas can be closely scrutinized.
The credit for the security of the pilgrims and the relative ease of the Haj today goes to the House of Saud. Pilgrims were shamefully pillaged and exploited until 1926, when Abdel Aziz ibn Saud won control of Mecca and personally undertook to guarantee the safety of the pilgrims.
His descendents are beginning to find that their legacy as guardians of Islam's holy shrines has become both a blessing and a curse.