In 1972 only 52 pilgrims from the Americas traveled to Mecca for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage required of every able Muslim at least once in a lifetime. But in 1990, when Californian Michael Wolfe—a new convert to Islam—made the trip, he found more Americans than that in his hotel. That was the first of many surprises on his mind-opening journey.
Mecca lies 50 miles east of the Red Sea. It is a modern city of a half million people, splashing up the rim of a granite bowl a thousand feet above sea level. Barren peaks surround it on every side, but there are passes: one leading north toward Syria; one south to Yemen; one west to the coast. A fourth, a ring road, runs east to Ta’if. By day, the hills form a volcanic monotony. At night, they blend into the sky and disappear.
The first thing I discovered about Mecca was that I’d been spelling the name wrong. West of town we passed a fluorescent sign with glowing arrows and six letters sparkling in the headlights: makkah. The orthography threw me. With its two hard Cs, Mecca is the most loaded Arabic word in the English language. Without them, what is it? No one here said MEH-ka. They said ma-KAH. English-speaking Meccans insisted on it. “Do you pronounce Manhattan men-HET-en?” one of them asked me.
I fell in behind my fellow pilgrim, Mohamad Mardini, as we climbed Umm al-Qura Road. At the top of the rise, where the street was closed to cars, five thousand people moved up the pavement. Reaching the crest, I came up on my toes. Everyone knew what was down there, glowing at the bottom of the valley: the largest open-air temple in the world.
Soon I was being introduced to a Saudi guide named Shaykh Ibrahim, a professor of hadith at the local university. I asked him, twice, what the Prophet had said about the mosque. Finally he said, “Just remember: the Ka’ba is a sacred building. But not so sacred as the people who surround it.” Pointing to the ground, he made a circle with his finger.
“Whatever you do here, don’t hurt anyone, not even accidentally. We are going to perform the Umrah now. We will greet the mosque, circle the shrine, walk seven times between the hills, like Hagar. Think of it as a pilgrim’s dress rehearsal. Don’t rush, don’t push. Take it easy. Get out of the way if anyone acts wild. If you harm someone, our performance might not be acceptable. You might do it for nothing.”
The core of the mosque at Mecca is an open, roofless forum overlooked by tiered arcades. The marble floor is 560 feet on the long sides, 350 feet wide, and polished to the whiteness of an ice rink. At the center of this hub stands the Ka’ba, a four-story cube of rough granite covered in a black embroidered veil. This monolith is Islam’s most sacred shrine.
The first sight of the shrine was stunning. Men wept and muttered verses where they stood. Women leaned against columns, crying the rarest sort of tears—of safe arrival, answered prayers, gratified desire. A ring of pilgrims 10 rows deep circled the shrine, forming a revolving band of several thousand people. Each hajji began at the Black Stone and circled the Ka’ba counterclockwise. This ritual, called Tawaf al-Qudum ( “the Turning of Arrival”) is expected of every visitor to Mecca. From a distance, the wheeling pilgrims obscured its base, so that for a moment the block itself appeared to be revolving on its axis. I noticed wooden litters passing, bearing pilgrims weakened by age or illness. These pallets marked the circle’s outer edges. As we came nearer, the shrine increased dramatically in size. On the edge of the ring, we adjusted our ihrams (two lengths of unstitched cotton cloth worn by men) and raised our hands to salute the stone. Then we joined the circle.
Keeping the shrine on our left, we began to turn. Ibrahim and Mardini went ahead, calling over their shoulders as we followed. There were special supplications for every angle of the building, but not many pilgrims had them memorized. Now and then we passed someone reading prayers from a handbook, but most people were speaking from the heart. I asked what was proper. The invocations all but drowned us out. “One God, many tongues!” Mardini shouted. “Say what you want, or repeat what you hear. Or just say, ‘God is great.’” I dropped back into the wheel and did all three.
Midnight HajjiSunstroke in June was so common that the Saudis, as pilgrim hosts, had set up 150 centers equipped to treat it. Green Crescent nurses staffed several hundred clinics in town. The TV preached prevention every evening, and leaflets were passed out in the streets. The essential advice—avoid direct sunlight—went mostly unheeded. Visiting hajjis continued to choke the roads.
Heat was our biggest adversary. I became what Mardini called a midnight hajji. I slept between prayers while the sun was up and visited the Haram every evening. Most of the time between dusk and dawn I spent at the mosque, a usual regime in June. The thermometer on the sill edged nearer 120 degrees Fahrenheit every day. The sun, bouncing off the streets, added ten degrees.
One night near the tawaf, I met two young newlyweds from Atlanta. She was of Turkish background. He was blond, a novice insurance adjuster. Both had grown up in the South.
Haram honeymooners were not unusual. I sometimes passed them escorting each other through the galleries. Inside the mosque, they practiced shy decorum.
On the street, when the crowds were large, they might hold hands. Mardini said that in families who could afford it, the hajj was considered the best way to cement a marriage, before having children.
When I asked these two from Georgia whether they spoke Arabic, the man looked sheepish. His wife replied, “Ah do speak Turkish. But Ah make ma prayahs in English.”
Mina to ArafatAt 7 a.m. all of Mina was in motion. I had been through Super Bowl gridlock in San Francisco. I had witnessed Woodstock and marched on Washington. I had never experienced a throng approaching this one. It was as if the 20th century’s thickest traffic tie-up had embarked on an epic journey back to Roman times. A tricky desert sky hung over everything, compressing volume, curving distance, befuddling the eye.
As we boarded vans, a block-long hulk of yellow helicopter appeared above the cliffs over the road. It hovered long enough to drop a basket on a cable, then pluck a prostrate pilgrim from the crowds. It reeled him up and vanished over the hillside. The Saudi army had seven of these flying hospitals, with landing pads all over the valley.
MakkahBack in California, when I was planning my trip, I viewed the hajj as a journey to a physical destination. But, in fact, it was protean, all process. It surprised me now to see how far off I’d been. In the West, the notion of pilgrimage centered on going, reaching, arriving. Nailing this moribund image to the hajj was a mistake, like claiming that going home to dinner begins with getting off work and ends with reaching the porch—omitting any mention of the meal.
The goal of the hajj is to perform it well. The rites are hard, sometimes unfathomable—like living. Yet they provide a counterweight to the usual view of life. Elsewhere, every person looks out for himself. During the hajj, people look out for each other. The hajj is a shared rite of passage.
I saw it through the eyes of others as much as through my own. In that way, it was like an act of love.
I admired the way sweat and symbols flowed together. By an act of imagination and exertion, a spiritual rite fulfilled a private quest. For all its public aspect, the experience was intensely personal. By giving the pilgrim a chance to choose his moment, it provided a service missing in the West since the days of the medieval palmers: It offered a climax to religious life.