On the haj: circling the Kaaba in Mecca
“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.
The overwhelming impression was of dazzling white marble and of arches with white plaster crenellations receding into the distance. The Saudi government has spared no expense in making this mosque, built around the focal point of daily worship for hundreds of millions of Muslims, into a monument inspiring awe and wonder among the millions who visit every year — especially those here for the first time. But the austere simplicity of the Kaaba itself, a plain stone cubic building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk, makes an even greater impression on visitors. Many raise their arms as it looms into sight from the edge of the inner courtyard, as if to protect themselves from some mysterious power, or perhaps to absorb some of the blessings they think it radiates.
We skipped down the marble steps into the courtyard and made our way towards the Kaaba, joining a crowd of several thousand performing the tawaf ritual – the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, the first part of the umra ceremony which pilgrims usually perform on arrival in Mecca. The tawaf ritual predates Islam, possibly by many hundreds of years, and its origins may be lost in the mists of time. Muslims associate the Kaaba with the prophet Ibrahim, the biblical Abraham, seen as the founder of a pure monotheism which slowly declined until revived in the 7th century by the prophet of Islam.
We shuffled barefoot around the four walls, pressed on all sides by men and women of many colours and languages. Men and women take part together, the men loosely cloaked in a white cloth thrown only over the left shoulder. The women cover their hair but leave their faces bare. Many pilgrims carried prayer books, some picking out the Arabic words with difficulty as they circled. Other read from texts in Urdu and languages in Latin and Cyrillic scripts.
Some came in groups with a leader. The leader would prompt them on each word, which the others shouted out in unison, one word at a time. Many were praying for forgiveness, others simple words of praise for God. Wives and husbands came together, often the man standing behind the woman, holding her shoulders and trying to shield her from the crush. Pilgrims walk around seven times, joining the circle whenever they please and leaving when they are done. The circle has not been broken for years, day in, day out, all night as well, even during Friday prayers. The last interruption may have been in 1979, when rebels took over the mosque, leading to a long and bloody siege.
The first circuit seemed to take an age — actually, about 10 minutes — and I wondered how I would last another six amid the heat and the sweat and the crush. But it became rhythmic, even mildly hypnotic, and the time passed fast. Ahmed and I moved closer to the Kaaba, cutting into the narrow passage between the stone wall and the Station of Abraham, a cylindrical glass and copper case containing a block of stone with the imprint of a foot. A sea of hands reached up to touch the cover of the monument, seeking blessings. Ahmed was not inclined to go closer to the Kaaba, where the crowd was heaviest. Clerics say that in the tawaf it makes no difference how far pilgrims are from the Kaaba, as long as they are within the confines of the sanctuary.
Our tawaf done, we headed for the area behind the Station of Ibrahim for two quick prayers. The area was packed with people clambering over those praying as they moved about the courtyard. In the crush, someone trod on the small bag Ahmed was carrying, breaking his glasses. My mobile phone skidded away across the polished marble, through a forest of bare feet. For a moment I thought it was gone for good, but seconds later I caught a glimpse of it and retrieved it. As at many crowded religious gatherings, pickpockets are active at the haj, taking advantage of people’s preoccupation with their religious duties. The lower part of my white clothes had a small pocket, big enough for a passport and money but not for notebook, telephone and shoes.
We stopped for a cup or two of water from the well of Zamzam, to which many pilgrims attribute miraculous healing powers. The water flows from taps all over the mosque complex and servers ensure steady supplies of disposable plastic cups. The taste was distinctly alkaline. Many pilgrims came with large plastic containers, even of a gallon or more, and filled them to take home as gifts for their friends. A Nigerian pilgrim told me that a recent scientific study proved its miraculous powers
The next major procedure in the umra is the sa’y, a brisk walk between two small hillocks, originally in the open air but now under cover, with powerful fans to cool off the pilgrims. We thought we had started at the wrong end and would have to do eight lengths instead of the prescribed seven. But when we reached the hillock at the other end of the walkway, more than 400 metres away, Ahmed realised that the crowd had confused him. At the end of each length, as they mounted the hillock, pilgrims again raised their hands towards the Kaaba, hardly visible between the pillars of the intervening halls. I noticed with physical pleasure the small marble tiles on the sloped parts, designed for bare toes to grip on as they climb.
Compared to the tawaf, the sa’y was relaxed, but its significance was less obvious. Few pilgrims I met said the sa’y was especially inspiring. The orthodox explanation is that it reenacts a frantic run back and forth by Abraham’s wife Hagar as she sought water for her infant son, and then the miraculous appearance of the Zamzam well to meet their need. Anthropologists have other explanations, rejected by the faithful.
Our sa’y completed, we slipped around the corner where youngsters with small scissors were waiting to clip our hair. They cut about half an inch from five or six spots around our heads, enough to meet the minimal requirement. Later in the week, someone will shave our heads completely. The boys clearly expected a tip for their 20-second task but Ahmed said it wasn’t necessary. Extracting money from your ihram clothing is quite an ordeal.
Ahmed and I parted. He had come to complete the rites, but now I wanted to talk to some of the pilgrims and hear their experiences of what for many of them will be one of the most memorable events in their life. I wandered through the marble halls where families had encamped, spreading rugs and cloths of every colour and design, resting and breathing in the atmosphere of the sanctuary. Old men from India, fakir-like, wiry, bronzed and bearded, lay in their white cloths, half their upper bodies exposed. Egyptian matrons, past the 55-year threshold below which women pilgrims need the company of a male relative, sat cross-legged in groups , reading from the identical Korans which the mosque supplies to anyone who wants to borrow one.
They all looked too preoccupied for conversation so I headed back towards the Kaaba, thinking that perhaps I should take a closer look at the Black Stone, the mysterious possibly meteoric rock, now fragmented, set in the eastern corner of the building. Though the religious authorities disapprove of superstitious or idolatrous activities, they have not been able to persuade some pilgrims, especially simple villagers, that the stone is just a stone, as the Caliph Omar reputedly said.
I slid back into the circling crowd, easing my way slowly towards the wall of the Kaaba as we circled. After close to two circuits, I found myself in reach of the southeastern face of the cube, alongside men pressing themselves again the stone. A space opened and I stepped in, laying the palms of my hands against the wall for just a few seconds. I glanced to the side and saw the faces of my neighbours. One was shedding ecstatic tears, one was kissing the stone, one had taken off his embroidered cap and was rubbing it up and down along the surface of the wall. Down the line, another man had his prayer rug crumpled in his hand like a giant rag and was polishing the Kaaba with it as he chanted.
I moved along the wall towards the stone, half a side away, squeezed in the sea of heaving bodies. As we started to wheel around the corner, just three determined bodies stood between the stone and me. I tried to squeeze in for a closer look but my neighbours were stronger than me and the force of the crowd was more than I could hold back. We all swung around and the stone was gone.