Born a Muslim I have always known that the spiritual centre of our Islamic faith is the Kaaba. I remember attending my very first Eid Ul Adha prayer at the age of six where I stood up in prayer in our local mosque in Brighton with hundreds of Muslims. We all faced towards the direction of Mecca and the immense black cube. On this day the Imam, like he did before every Eid Ul Adha prayer gave a sermon about the origins of Hajj.

Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, is one of the Five Pillars of our faith. This year, the Hajj is expected to start on the 9th of August 2019. It takes place annually between the 8th and 12th days of Dhu-Al-Hijjah, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

The origins of the Hajj goes back more than four thousand years to the time of the prophet Abraham. Abraham’s wife Hager was stranded in the desert with their infant son Ishmael. Due to severe dehydration from thirst it seemed like Ishmael was about to breath his last breaths. At this point Hager ran back and forth between the mountains of Safa and Marwa looking for water until the angel Jibril (Gabriel) touched down to earth and created a spring of fresh water for the baby. This spring is now known as the Well of Zamzam.

Abraham was then ordered by Allah SWT to build the Kaaba, a black cubic structure in the dessert of Mecca. According to Muslim belief every Prophet that came after Abraham visited the Kaaba. However, eventually the believers of the Abrahamic faith forgot about this place and the inhabitants of Mecca replaced their monotheistic faith with worshipping idols.

In 630 A.D, our Prophet, Muhammad led a group of Muslims from Medina to the Kaaba in Mecca, this became the first official Hajj. The Prophet destroyed the idols placed there by the previous polytheistic worshipers and re-dedicated the site in the name of Allah.

The path followed by Muhammad and the Muslims of the time are retracted by all Hajji's, Muslim pilgrims as part of the Hajj rituals which include making Hager's run between the mountains; Safa and Marwa, stoning the wall of Shaitan that marks the points where Shaitan tempted Ibrahim to defy God.

Then the Hajj comes to an end on Eid ul Adha with the slaughtering of an animal in honour of the sacrifice that Ibrahim made to save his son. Hajji’s also climb Mount of Arafat from which Muhammad made his last sermon.

Routes to Mecca

Nowadays with the advent of planes, trains and automobiles it has become very easy for Muslims to make the pilgrimage and each year between 2.5 to 3.5 million Muslims go to Mecca for Hajj. However, in previous centuries before the advent of modern transport, the Hajj often meant traveling in a camel caravan for months at a time, across the desserts in the scorching heat.

These routes that were followed by Hajj pilgrims have been traced back by archeologists and historians by examining the intricate network of forts, mosques, paved roadways, cisterns, direction markers and milestones built to support the travellers.

Hajj pilgrims came from all over the world and they made the last part of their journey across Arabia to Mecca following set itineraries. There were six main routes marked by a Miqat. A Miqat is a boundary point marking the area a pilgrim can not cross without being in the state of ihram, which entails wearing plain garments - two unstitched cloths for men, or loose fitting closing for woman- as well as well as abiding to certain prohibitions such as not giving into anger, using perfumes, killing plants or animals.

Five out of the six Miqats were appointed on instruction of the prophet Muhammad. The sixth Miqat was put in place later for pilgrims coming from India and other countries east of Mecca.

The main routes were from Iraq, Syria and Egypt and of these one of the oldest routes was the one from Damascus, marked by Miqat Jufah. Other major historical sites on the route include the city of Humayma, the square fortress and the mosque of Khan Al Zabib and the palaces at Ma’an and Jize, which seemed to have been used by leading Ummayyads when on pilgrimage and perhaps as caravansaries to host passing dignitaries. Both were near large roman reservoirs.

Performing the Hajj

There are several different ways of performing the Hajj. The ultimate rite of passage during the Hajj is the tawaf which is the name of the ritual of circling the Kaaba seven times. But there are a number of steps that must be followed before and after the tawaf.

Step 1

On the first day of Hajj which is the 8th day of Dhul-Hijjah a person must enter into the state of ihram, physically and spiritually and then make a eight kilometer journey to Mina, the city of tents. They will remain there in prayer and in remembrance of Allah until dawn the next day.

Step 2

On the second day, the 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah the pilgrims make a 14.4km journey from Mina to Arafat. They spend the day in prayer and after sunset make another 9km journey to Muzdalifah where a night is spent under the stars. This is also a good area to pick up stones for the ritual of the next day.

Step 3

Day three is known as Yawmul Hajj al Akbar and is considered to be the longest and most dangerous due to recent stampedes. The 10th of Dhul-Hijjah is also the day Muslims from across the world celebrate Eid Ul Adha. The Hajji’s begin the day by heading back to Mina. Once they reach Mina they throw seven pebbles at the Jamarat. the Jamarat is a large column which symbolises the devil Shaitan. After casting the stones the pilgrims perform a sacrifice of an animal where they must slaughter a sheep, goat, cow or a camel. It is also permissible to pay for it to be done in their names if they didn't want to slaughter the animal themselves. After that the pilgrims will trim their hair where most men will shave their heads. Then they will all remove their ihram clothes. They will then head towards Mecca to perform tawaf and sa’ee, first circulating the Kaaba seven times and then walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa. After that everyone goes back to their campsite in Mina. They spend the next few days in Mina and continue to throw stones, except this time it is seven stones at each of the three pillars.

Then after spending a few days in Mina pilgrims go back to Mecca to perform a final goodbye tawaf of the Kaaba, before either heading home or going to Medina to visit the Prophet’s mosque.