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.
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.)
It's an arduous time for many of the pilgrims, young and old. Deaths are not uncommon among the elderly hajjis. A hundred of the 74,000 Pakistani pilgrims died on Hajj this year, according to a member of Pakistan's pilgrim-assistance organization. ''Many of the victims' relatives, while sad, said it is an honor to die and be buried in the land of Muhammad,'' the spokesman said.
However, most hajjis make it back to Jiddah elated at having completed the pilgrimage. ''I'm so very happy that I succeeded,'' beamed Alhaji Oyediran, from Lagos, Nigeria. ''I came with my sister Najwa,'' he said, pointing to a young woman who turned and smiled, flashing a pair of gold-covered eye teeth. Said Oyediran: ''She got those here for only $36.''
Gold isn't the only thing the hajjis buy. Luggage seems to outnumber passengers by a ratio of about 5 to 1. There are television sets, cassette recorders, brass kettles, rugs, shoes and sandals, and a wide array of clothing materials. ''These things are cheaper and more available in Saudi Arabia,'' Oyediran explained while guarding his four good-sized suitcases and two boxes full of stereo equipment.
Tajudeen Dladimeji, also from Lagos, had two identical cassette recorders. ''I'll keep one and sell the other,'' he said, pointing out one way in which hajjis offset the cost of their pilgrimage. The terminal is full of such entrepreneurs. Some push soap and hair brushes; others sell rugs and cotton. And then there are the cooks, African women mostly, who turn out curry rice and chicken from makeshift kitchens that fill the terminal with mouth-watering smells.
Some pilgrims object to this materialistic side of the Hajj. ''I know there are people who come only to make money,'' said Zurac. ''God will punish them.'' None of the enterprising hajjis would confess to this motive although one did admit, ''I need money for Hajj.''
The mass euphoria from having completed Hajj, coupled with the intense market activity, fill the terminal with an electric atmosphere. Even the tired pilgrims , who rarely move from their staked-out turfs, talk continuously about their experience as they wait to leave. The chatter, in scores of different languages, is deafening. Yet it is the variety of colors and styles of the pilgrims' clothing that truly merits attention. The men have discarded their hajji outfits (women aren't required to wear them), which are worn to make everyone equal in the eyes of God, and all the pilgrims are decked out in their national dress. The Africans are resplendent in bright reds, yellows, greens, and oranges; the Algerians, dignified in their flowing white robes and wide-brimmed turbans, and the Iranian women somber in their cumbersome-looking black chadors.
As the Hajj has become increasingly popular, it has required some big-league organizing by the Saudi government's Ministry of Pilgrimage and Endowments. In a recent press report, Minister of Information Muhammad Abduh Yamani talked about how the government built new roads, moved to ensure that adequate supplies of reasonably priced foods were available, upgraded medical and housing facilities, and improved transportation services for the pilgrims.
During conversations with a number of hajjis, few had complaints about the system as a whole, but many criticized the role of the Saudi mutawwifm , or pilgrim guide. Each group of hajjis upon entering the kingdom is assigned a guide who is responsible for his group's transportation, room, and board. For this he is paid a fee that varies according to the type of accommodations (everything from tents to first-class hotels).
''They are overcharging,'' said Tarek Tantway, from Cairo, who had just completed his fourth pilgrimage. ''In Mecca our guide had 40 of us in a four-bedroom flat, and there was only one fan. For this he charged us $340 each.'' In his press report, Dr. Yamani referred to the mutawwif problem by saying steps were being taken to improve the system.
But Tantway perhaps best summed up the feelings of many of the hajjis when he said: ''There are bound to be problems when you have so many people together at one time. But we are prepared to suffer as it is a part of the pilgrimage. It's trouble, but a happy trouble. . . .