Hajj

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The Hajj (Arabic حج‎) is the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Most pilgrims also visit other holy sites, notably Medina where the Prophet lived and taught from when he was driven out of Mecca until his triumphant return.

The Hajj can only be completed during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. A pilgrimage to Mecca at any other time is known as Umrah (عمرة), and while not compulsory is highly recommended.

Travel Warning WARNING: The Hajj is intended for Muslims only, and under Saudi law the territory around Mecca and Medina is off-limits to non-Muslims.

Understand[edit]

Pilgrims circling the Kaaba, Mecca

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; every adult Muslim is supposed to do it at some time in his or her life if health and finances permit. In poorer areas it is not uncommon for whole families or even whole villages to chip in to send one person.

It is an exceedingly cosmopolitan affair. Predominantly Muslim areas include most of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, plus South and Southeast Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia and several countries in West Africa. Several other areas have large Muslim minorities and there are some Muslims nearly everywhere. The pilgrimage brings Muslims from everywhere together.

It is also one of the largest human migrations. Every year over two million people visit Saudi Arabia for this pilgrimage. Since they all arrive at roughly the same time and visit the same places in the same order, and since a large number of Saudis go as well, this is a major logistical problem. The Saudi government has a ministry to manage it.

Despite it being illegal for non-Muslims, a few Western explorers have managed the journey — most notably, Sir Richard Burton made the Hajj in 1853 and wrote an account of the trip.

Prepare[edit]

Unless you are a citizen of Saudi Arabia you will need a visa, obtained in advance from a Saudi embassy. Visas are allocated on a quota system, based on the number of Muslims in a country. You may need to provide evidence that you are Muslim, such as a letter from your local mosque.

Women under 45 are required to travel with a mahram, a related adult male who is the head of her family (usually a husband or father), and proof of the relationship is required. Women over 45 may travel without a mahram if they're in an organized group and have a letter of permission from the man who would be her mahram.

Proof of vaccination for meningitis (specifically the ACYW135 vaccine) between three years before and ten days before your entry into Saudi Arabia is required. Yellow fever vaccination is required if you arrive from any country with known yellow fever infections, and polio vaccinations are required for children up to 15. As millions of people from all over the world gather for Hajj and therefore you will be exposed to many diseases, you may want to discuss other vaccinations and preventative measures with your doctor.

Get in[edit]

Historically, people made the pilgrimage by camel caravan or by ship. It took months, even years, and was very dangerous.

Hajj terminal, exterior
Hajj terminal interior

Today, most pilgrims arrive via the airport at Jeddah. Airlines in most Muslim countries offer special flights specifically for this and Jeddah has many regular commercial flights as well, in particular flights to most major European or Middle Eastern hubs. See Jeddah#Get_in for more information.

There are two special Hajj terminals, the largest buildings (by roof area) in the world. They are enormous tents of fiberglass fabric on reinforced concrete poles and steel cables. At Hajj time, there are dozens of large aircraft parked alongside these terminals. These are used only for the Hajj; the airport has another terminal for normal travel. Driving to the regular terminal, you pass between the two Hajj terminals.

From Jeddah — for most pilgrims, directly from the airport — there are buses to Mecca. Many are painted in the yellow and black pattern used on school buses in North America; seeing dozens of those on the highway is a strange sight if you know them as school buses. Buses are also used for the trip from Mecca to Medina and back; Saudi Arabia has not had a railway since Lawrence and the lads blew up the Turkish one during the First World War.

Route[edit]

The Hajj route in and around Mecca

Once at Mecca, the traditional Hajj route is as follows:

  1. Miqat, or changing into the pilgrims' ihram clothes
  2. Tawaf az-Ziyarah, walking around the Kaaba four times at a fast pace and three times at a slow pace, and Sa`y, walking seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah (both rituals within the Masjid al-Haram, the main mosque)
  3. On the 8th day of the month (8 Zil Hijjah and first day of Hajj), moving to Mina, camping overnight and spend the night in prayer
  4. On the 9th, the Wuquf, journey to Arafat and spending the day in prayer. A pilgrim's Hajj is considered invalid if they do not spend the afternoon on Arafat.
  5. As soon as the sun sets, the pilgrims leave Arafat for Muzdalifah, an area between Arafat and Mina. Camping overnight at Muzdalifah and collect pebbles.
  6. On the 10th, the stoning of the jamraat, throwing seven pebbles at the large wall representing the Devil, followed by the sacrifice of an animal (often performed by proxy by buying a sacrifice voucher in Mecca)
  7. On the 10th or 11th, Tawaf az-Ziyarah, repeating step 2
  8. On the 11th and 12th, stoning of the jamraat, repeating step 6
  9. Tawaf Widaa, a final circumambulation of the Kaaba

The first two steps are known as the "lesser Hajj" or Umrah, while the full course is known as the "greater Hajj" or al-Hajj al-Akbar.

Stay healthy[edit]

Caution NOTE: In 2013, Saudi health officials asked pilgrims visiting its holy sites to wear masks in crowded places to stop the spread of the MERS coronavirus. [1] In 2014, pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were banned due to an Ebola outbreak in those nations. [2] (Oct 2014)

The Hajj brings together vast multitudes of pilgrims from all around the world. As of 2013, the Ministry of Hajj states that vaccinations for meningococcal meningitis are required for all pilgrims, and those from yellow fever zones must have a vaccination for that as well.

The other main health risk is stampedes, particularly during the stoning of the jamraat. Immediately after the noon prayer is the most crowded and thus the most dangerous time, and on several occasions hundreds of participants had suffocated or been trampled to death in stampedes, most recently in 2006, killing 346. Tight access controls and a new multi-level bridge spreading out pilgrims have so far prevented a recurrence.

Go next[edit]

Hajj and Umrah visas are strictly limited to Mecca, Medina, Mina, Arafah and Muzdalifah. Traveling anywhere else in Saudi Arabia will require an additional travel permit, which is difficult and time-consuming to obtain, and is rarely granted without good reason (eg. medical emergencies).

Expats living in Saudi Arabia can get good deals on flights out of the country at Hajj. With all the pilgrims coming in, airlines from any country with a lot of Muslims — most places between Nigeria and Indonesia — offer large discounts to avoid flying home with empty planes.

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