This year I have the honor and opportunity to perform Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This is a rare opportunity for most Muslims in the world as the logistics, cost, and time commitment are all prohibitive for many. Still, it is required for all Muslims that are healthy enough and financially able to perform the pilgrimage to do so at least once in their lifetime. I decided that now is the best time for me and my family, so for me this is the trip of a lifetime.
Details and explanations of the pilgrimage and rituals that are performed during the trip can be read about on Wikipedia or another resource, but I would like to summarize the the trip to explain how truly unique or an experience this will be.
I say “unique,” but there are usually somewhere between 2-3 million people that perform the pilgrimage every year. These people all congregate in Mecca and represent nearly 200 countries, and all will be staying within a couple of miles of each other. It’s a staggering number of people and will be quite a site to behold. I hope to have plenty of pictures to share after the trip.
Another part of the uniqueness is the fact that only Muslims are permitted entry to the city of Mecca. This is not just some trip that anyone can come witness as it’s not a tourist attraction. The visa pilgrims are granted are specifically for Hajj, and there are quite a few requirements and restrictions the Saudi government imposes.
I hope that I can provide some readers with a unique view from the inside that many people otherwise would not have an opportunity to see.
The rituals that are performed are done over about a one week period. It starts with men being required to wear two white sheets, one around the waist and one for the upper body, and making the intention to perform Hajj. Women can wear any clothes they like as long as they follow Islamic requirements (they are not allowed to cover their hands and face). This is called being in the state of ihram. The idea is that a wealthy person should be indistinguishable from a poor person, as all are equal in the eyes of God.
Once in ihram, pilgrims go to the neighboring city of Mina, also known as “tent city” as everyone sleeps in a tent of some form. This is where pilgrims will stay most of the next week, and their time is spent remembering God and making prayers.
On one of the afternoons, the millions of pilgrims will travel to a mountain called Arafat where they make prayers. This would be the time where you ask for anything and everything you and your family/friends would want, including (and especially) for forgiveness for any sins.
That same day after sunset, all pilgrims again will move to a desert called Muzdhalifah to spend the night. Pilgrims are required to stay until the morning prayer. After that, everyone returns to the tent city.
The remaining days are spent performing a symbolic stoning of Satan by throwing rocks at designated walls. During this time it is also required that all Muslims, not just those on the pilgrimage, pay to sacrifice a lamb or other animal so the meat can be donated to the poor to eat.
Towards the end pilgrims will to go Mecca to circle the Kabah, the black cube that represents the home of God and the object all Muslims pray towards, a total of seven times.
For men, one of the final steps is the shave or trim their hair. Women need only trim a small portion of their hair.
If a Pilgrim performs the Hajj properly and does not break one of the many rules of ihram, and if God accepts it, then the reward is being granted heaven in the afterlife. Of course there’s no way of knowing whether it was accepted or not, but the idea is that you’re given a clean slate so it’s best to avoid bad deeds in the future.
This wasn’t intended to be comprehensive and I’m certainly no religious scholar, so apologies for any mistakes or inaccuracies.
While I won’t be writing anything during the trip (this is the only trip I’ve ever taken without a laptop), I do plan on writing about my experience when I return. I hope to share pictures of a location that most people simply won’t have a chance to visit, and I’m certain the sheer number of people in those pictures will be enough to make you say “wow.”
There’s is of course a miles/points angle to this, as I saved about $1,800 per person by booking my own flights instead of going through the tour group (a tour group is pretty much a requirement for this trip, by the way). The tour group’s package included economy flights round trip from New York to Saudi Arabia on Saudia. I used miles to book flights from the west coast on Etihad Business Class on the way there and Swiss Airlines Business Class on the return, so that was quite an upgrade while saving on the tour package.
I’ll be mostly MIA for the next few weeks, but I hope to have a heck of a story and quite a few pictures when I return!