The pilgrim’s way

The annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca has its origin in one of the most enduring epics of human history. The Prophet Mohammed was born in 570 AD in Mecca, a staging post along ancient trade routes carrying frankincense from the southern Arabian Peninsula. It was a city in which a multiplicity of gods were worshipped and, by the time of Mohammed’s birth, a city gripped with an insecurity born out of declining trade and endemic tribal warfare.

In the year 610, Mohammed ventured into the Arabian desert, where he heard the voice of the Archangel Gabriel imparting revelations from God which would give birth to Islam. After three years, the Prophet began to preach his message to the people of Mecca. The vested interests of local elites were deeply hostile to the revelations, seeing in them a threat to their positions of power, and they forced Mohammed and his followers from the city. Their escape or hijra (which literally means ‘flight’) north to the city of Medina and the date (622 AD) came to stand as markers of the new faith and the first year of the Islamic calendar, 1 AH (After Hijra).

By the time Mohammed returned to Mecca in 630 AD, his following had grown in number and power. Mecca soon became the centre of the new faith. Mohammed died in 632 AD, but Islam had already acquired an extraordinary momentum.

Uthman, the third successor to Mohammed as leader of the Islamic community (644-656 AD), drew together the sayings and story of Mohammed, using scribes and a panel of religious scholars to form the canon of suras (chapters) which make up the Qur’an. Emerging from this poetic and lyrical embodiment of faith were the five pillars of Islam—paramount to their worship of Allah. Shahada (the profession of faith, Islam’s basic tenet, that ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet’); Sala (prayer); Zakat (the giving of alms to the poor); Sawm (the fast for the duration of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the month in which God’s revelations were first revealed); and the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca which is incumbent upon all Muslims of able body and sufficient means).

By 710 AD, the conquering armies of Islam had reached Morocco, Al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the Farthest Land of the Setting Sun, and deep into Persia and India in the east—an astonishing expansion for a religion born in a remote Arabian town seemingly destined for terminal decline. Carrying with them the Qur’an, and turning to face Mecca whenever at prayer along the way, these soldiers of Islam added geographical breadth to the scope and power of the new faith. In less than a century, Islam had become a world religion.

The reach and enduring call of Islam to the faithful is evident as far away as the Sahara Desert of Mauritania. Chinguetti, Islam’s seventh holiest city, is today less a city than a remote desert outpost of just 4000 people, a place where the streets have no name and there is no electricity. Its simple stone mosque and mud-brick houses are surrounded by desert which reaches from the shores of the Atlantic across Africa to the Red Sea. Standing in Chinguetti’s sand-blown lanes amid the great emptiness all around, it is here that the original call of Islam is easiest to imagine, even more so than in the great Islamic citadels of Cairo and Baghdad. Perhaps Mecca was once like this—a small town where the great camel caravans of trade no longer called and which time seemed to have forgotten. It was at the Great Mosque of Chinguetti that pilgrimage caravans assembled to begin the year-long pilgrimage to Mecca, taking 52 days to reach Timbuktu.

It was from desert kingdoms such as these that the great empire of Mali ruled vast territories in Africa. In the 14th century, Mali’s King Kankan Musa undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca accompanied by a royal court of more than 60,000 people and so much gold that gold prices in the East were devalued for more than a decade.

Once home to 12 mosques, more than 20 Qur’anic schools and some 20,000 people, Chinguetti’s heritage is preserved by old men, the custodians of the keys to the great libraries of scholarship where fragments of sacred Islamic texts now fall apart if touched.

Far away to the north-east, Kairouan in Tunisia remains the fourth holiest city of Islam. Unlike Chinguetti, thousands still visit this city of almost 120,000 people. The inhabitants of Kairouan are renowned for their conservatism (at least by liberal Tunisian standards) and seem at once bewildered and overexcited by the daily influx of tourists from the beach resorts along Tunisia’s coast. By sunset, the tourists have largely left, leaving behind a dimly-lit, maze-like medina decked out in blue and white and presided over by an austere 9th-century mosque.

Legend has it that Kairouan was chosen as the site for a town in 670 AD, when the horse belonging to the leader of the armies of Islam, Uqba ibn Nafaa al-Fihri, tripped on a golden goblet. When the goblet was disturbed, water rose up from the earth. Enquiries revealed that the goblet had disappeared from Mecca years before. To this day, many Muslims believed that the well of Kairouan is connected to the sacred well of Zam-Zam in Mecca.

If Chinguetti is a place to imagine Islam’s humble desert roots and visiting Kairouan is to understand the power of miracle, Damascus is the place to picture Islam’s diverse cosmopolitanism, a crossroads for the peoples of a world united only by faith.

From Damascus, the caravans began the last leg of the journey, pushing south into the bleak, black and barren landscape of western Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims who joined the caravans, among them the explorers Sir Richard Burton and Charles Doughty, spoke of the long weeks of hardship, of thirst and of hunger. The great, huddled caravans of pilgrims stretched for more than three miles and almost 10,000 people, all the while susceptible to the habitual raids of bandits and to illness; In 1865, the plague ravaged the returning Hajj caravan and killed some 50,000 people along the route.

Western Saudi Arabia today is littered with evidence of the great mass of humanity who once crossed the desert by camel and on foot. Not far east of Mecca, in a desolate stretch of the Arabian desert, stand the stone cisterns of Birkat Al-Khurabah. They form part of a now largely abandoned chain of water points known as the Darb Zubaydah (Zubaydah Road) which once ran from the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf in Iraq to Mecca. Legend has it that in the 9th century, the wife of the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (the Islamic ruler in Baghdad at the heart of so many tales in Thousand and One Nights) undertook the pilgrimage and almost died from thirst en route. Promising that no pilgrim should suffer as she did, Queen Zubaydah built the water storage points to facilitate the safe passage of pilgrims from across the deserts to the east.

Almost 1000 years later, when Arabia and the holy cities were under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the sultan’s army built a railway from Damascus to Medina. The railway’s purpose was to ease the journey for pilgrims to the holy cities, although T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, feeding on the hostility to foreign rule by local tribespeople, set about destroying the railway as a symbol of Ottoman power. Railway sleepers, garrison forts for Turkish troops and substations along the path of the Hejaz Railway, are now slowly disappearing under the sands, forlorn and abandoned by all but historians.

These stories of epic overland journeys are now largely a thing of the past: more than 80 per cent of the two million pilgrims who undertook the Hajj in 2004 arrived in Saudi Arabia by air.

Just prior to the Hajj, I arrived at Medina airport. Medina is the second holiest city in Islam but, unlike Mecca, only its centre is off-limits to non-Muslims. It was in Medina that Mohammed, in 623-4 AD (2 AH), received a revelation stating that all Muslims should pray in the direction of Mecca, not Jerusalem as was hitherto the practice. As we circled the city, the minarets of the Prophet’s Mosque (the second holiest mosque to Muslims) were distantly visible, a tantalising reminder of a world which was not mine to enter. I could not but feel a longing for the roads that I would never travel, an irretrievable nostalgia for the impossible endpoint of a journey begun in remote outposts like Chinguetti and through great cities like Damascus. 

But I soon discovered that the most powerful evocation of the Hajj, the goal of almost a billion of the world’s people, lay not in the stones of former waystations, nor in the cities where pilgrims once gathered in readiness for the journey, nor even in a glimpse of sacred architecture. Rather, the story of the Hajj became real for me in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, the traditional gateway to Mecca some 75km away and as close as I, a non-Muslim, could travel.

In the old city of Jeddah, with its labyrinthine souqs twisting between houses made of Red Sea coral, limestone and wooden balconies, I encountered pilgrims swathed in simple white robes on their way to Mecca for the rites of the Hajj.

For fourteen centuries of human history, Muslims have been drawn to this point, appearing from all corners of the earth, having finally crossed the trackless wastes of Arabia. So close to Mecca, it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by this hard-won symbol of unity that has survived despite deep divisions which prevail in the Muslim World.

The pilgrims I encountered were as diverse as the world itself. They came from Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America. They were proud of their piety and joy, spiritually aware that were standing on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream. It shall never be my journey, but their look of happiness was indeed a thing to behold. For the first time, I truly understood.  

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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