It is a voyage to the heart of Islam. The hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, is the central event in the religious life of every devout Muslim, an epic quest on a scale beyond any other on Earth. Spiritually and physically, it is an experience that binds the entire Islamic world.
The fifth and final "pillar of faith," the hajj is asked of every able-bodied Muslim just once in a lifetime. But the scope of it—the size, the diversity, the history—strengthens both the individuals and the whole of Islam. Few Muslims return the same. "It was the journey of my soul," says Sohel Ahmed, a pilgrim from Northern Virginia. "I had been searching for purpose in this life, and hajj shows we are all connected to one another."
Through 14 centuries of war and natural disaster, pilgrims have sought salvation in the five days of ritual commemorating the life of Abraham and following in the footsteps of Muhammad. This year the hajj drew more than 2.5 million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia—the largest single gathering on the face of the planet.
The hardship of the trip is legendary; in the past, it took months, years, or decades to complete. "The land routes were often littered with the remains of caravans ravaged by raiding tribes, stricken by disease, short of water, or just plain lost,'' writes scholar David Tschanz in Journeys of Faith, Roads of Civilization. Even in recent years, thousands of pilgrims have been trampled, suffocated, or burned alive, including 250 deaths in a 2004 stampede, 343 in a fire in 1977, and almost 1,500 in a crowded tunnel in 1990.
Although Mecca is a modern city, and the Saudis spend billions on tourist services, it is strictly Muslim, and entry controls, including roadblocks, keep Muslim pretenders away. Yet non-Muslims have gone to great lengths to witness the hajj firsthand. British explorer Richard Burton made it to Mecca by ship and caravan, but only after satisfying Muslim custom by having himself circumcised.
To prepare for the hajj, the Koran instructs pilgrims to enter a state of consecration called the ihram: A pilgrim must avoid angry words, sexual intercourse, and the cutting of hair or nails. In a symbolic purification, each pilgrim bathes and discards regular clothes. Men wear two unstitched lengths of white cloth, and women wear simple versions of their normal dress with no veil or gloves. Clad in identical 50-cent sandals, pilgrims embark on the hajj as equals before God.
Travelers go first to the vast Haram Mosque. With 4 acres of floor space, it is five times larger than the world's largest stadium, yet pilgrims still spill out onto the streets. Each day, a billion Muslims turn to face this spot. Centered in its expanse of white marble is the Kaaba—literally, the "cube"—representing the one God. Said to have been built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham, the Kaaba is draped at all times with a black curtain on which the words of the Koran are embroidered in gold.
Inside the Kaaba is the legendary Black Stone, said by some to be a meteorite from heaven, by others the surviving piece of Abraham's original building. In a ritual known as the Turning, pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times, trying to touch or gesture as they pass the Black Stone. As they do, they can be literally lifted off their feet, swept into a maelstrom of hundreds of thousands. At the outer edges of the circle, the weak or elderly are carried aloft on litters.
Beneath the Kaaba flows the origin of Mecca: the Zamzam well. In Islamic history, Hagar, mother of Abraham's child Ishmael, was exiled with her child to the desert. Desperate for water, she ran between two nearby hills until miraculously a well appeared. Now, 1,400 years later, the well still gushes, and pilgrims drink from tin cups and fill bottles to take home. Retracing Hagar's quest for water, the pilgrims then make seven runs between the hills, although today they do it in an air-conditioned arcade.
On the second day of hajj, over 2 million pilgrims stream by bus, by car, and on foot into the 10-mile-long valley of Mina. Normally empty, Mina is transformed during hajj into a 618-acre tent city. Pilgrims are grouped by country, the men segregated from the women. Some tents are air conditioned, but poorer pilgrims or those wishing to experience the hajj as Muhammad did sleep under the stars in 100-degree heat. The goal of the gatherings is to enhance the spirit of brotherhood and foster discussion among different communities; the result has been some of the great works of Islamic theology.