It's 3 a.m. and I am in the Grand Mosque of Mecca standing before the ancient Kaaba, a rectangular stone room sheathed in black silk and cotton embroidered in gold with Koranic verses. I am about to perform one of the most significant duties of a Muslim: to circumambulate the Kaaba seven times, counterclockwise, after proclaiming, "Bismillah! Allah-o-Akbar!" (In the name of God! God is Great!).
Well, not I exactly. We are about to circumambulate the Kaaba. The crowd of pilgrims is an utter crush, completely filling the mosque. Most are waiting to do their rounds, others hang about, talking, praying, sleeping. Male pilgrims are dressed identically in an ihram, two pieces of unstitched, seamless white cloth, one wrapped around the waist, the other across the chest and right shoulder. It is meant to dissolve the differences between rich and poor though the first piece is usually secured by a money belt, and some are definitely weightier than others while also giving a sense of mortality by reminding the wearer of a shroud. Women wear long robes with their faces and hands uncovered. We comprise an uncountable mass, and there are many, many more outside waiting to take our place.
The Hajj, literally "setting out," is the world's largest, regularly scheduled pilgrimage. Like other religious treks, it offers grace, a surer shot at salvation, maybe a miraculous cure for an illness. But the Hajj is obligatory: it must be performed at least once by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. (Borrowing money to come is prohibited, although many do.) Having performed the Hajj becomes a lifelong distinction celebrated with an honorific: I can now call myself Hajji Maseeh Rahman. And the Hajj is done en masse during one five-day period in the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Two million faithful have come to Mecca this year from virtually everywhere Bosnia, the Ivory Coast, Michigan and it feels like the most interesting year to be a Hajji since 1183, when a band of Crusaders tried crashing. It's been a rough year for far-flung Muslims, often minorities in their homelands, with allegiances torn and their faith openly challenged as rarely before. This is a chance to be literally surrounded by religious kin. They may ask you a question in a language you don't understand. But it's not going to be about your beard, your scarf, what the hell's up with "you people." For perhaps the first time in many pilgrims' lives, they are surrounded by only Muslims.
There are no more camel caravans from Damascus or leaky boat journeys a la Lord Jim. Only pilgrims from Red Sea ports in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen are allowed to come to the Hajj in ships. The rest, about 80%, arrive by air at a massive terminal near Jeddah. Saudi authorities are always keen to pick out drug smugglers and thieves; this year they are more determined than ever to prevent any terrorists from slipping in. (In 1987, Iranian pilgrims went on an anti-U.S. riot that caused more than 400 deaths.) An American security firm specializing in biometric face identification has been hired to scan the irises of some pilgrims; a French company has the contract to digitally record their fingerprints. Intelligence operatives mingle with the crowds and thousands of soldiers and police are stationed along the vast area of the pilgrimage.
All of this creates spectacular delays. After landing at noon, it took me three hours to get through immigration, sandwiched between Afghans and Indonesians, and another four hours before my bus left the airport. (Pilgrims are allowed to go only to Hajj sites). I reached my lodgings in Mecca at midnight: it took 12 hours to travel 90 km.
For six weeks every year, Mecca becomes the most crowded city on earth. Set in a small valley surrounded by barren hills, the town lives on one trade, as reflected in an old local saying: "We sow no wheat or sorghum, the pilgrims are our crops." Scores of languages can be heard, and a multiplicity of cuisines is available: Arab, Indonesian, Turkish, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese.
Only Muslims can enter the city and during the Hajj everyone must have a pilgrim pass. The super-rich take a suite at the Intercontinental overlooking the Grand Mosque, paying $15,000 for the stay. Others find humbler lodgings. At 2 a.m., Abdur Rashid, an Indian engineer employed in Jeddah, is eating kebabs and bread with his wife in the open square in front of the mosque. "They are asking for 500 riyals ($145) for a room in the hotels," he says. "It's nice enough here, and in a little while we'll move into the mosque and sleep." While pilgrims pump an estimated $1.5 billion into the local economy during the Hajj, the Saudi government spends an additional $1 billion, both on infrastructure and to keep the pilgrims alive. Government agencies and private Saudi companies distribute some 10 million mineral-water bottles, 1 million hot meals, and tons of fresh fruit.