Pilgrims Walk, but Saudis Foot Bill

Saudi Arabia spent billions for this year's Haj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims that culminated in thousands circling the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It wasn't always that way.

Before the discovery of oil in the kingdom in the early 1920s, Saudi Arabia was dependent on money made from the pilgrims. (Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is expected to perform the Haj at least once in a lifetime.) This was especially true of Mecca, where yesterday and today, pilgrims performed ritual stoning of pillars, symbolizing triumph over the devil, and sacrificing of animals before the 2.3 million Muslims begin journeys home to some 100 countries.

At the time of the Haj, the Saudis sold their goods - especially cattle and dates - to pilgrims from Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and India, sometimes by camel caravan. The pilgrims, in turn, brought goods and spices to barter and introduced many new ideas and languages.

Even the black cloth covering the Kaaba, the cubic stone structure that is Islam's holiest site, was brought from Egypt until the 1950s. This year's gold-embroidered cover was made by 200 workers in Saudi Arabia at a cost of $4.5 million.

Modern-day pilgrims pay for their transport, housing, and food expenses. But hundreds who are too poor to cover the costs come as guests of the kingdom.

The Saudis also spend billions to provide services to the pilgrims as well as to thousands of Muslims who come at other times of the year.

Mecca, once a small town in the barren desert, now has an impressive network of bridges, roads, and state-of-the-art telephone and electricity services.

Meals and water are distributed free of charge, and religious guides roam the streets to give advice to pilgrims on the rituals of the pilgrimage.

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