Each year, over 2.5 million Muslims descend in Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj. The largest gathering of humanity in any one time or place is the culminating spiritual experience for a Muslim, as well as a logistical challenge for the government of Saudi Arabia.
The Hajj has been performed by Muslims every year for the past 14 centuries. In earlier times, the Hajj was literally the journey of a lifetime, a dream for which a person spent an entire lifetime saving up the funds. The trip itself was an arduous and difficult one, often taking months or even years on horseback or on foot, through mountain terrain and desert. Gangs of bandits often attacked the routes to Mecca to extort money from the pilgrims.
"And proclaim the Pilgrimage among men. They will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways..." (Qur'an 22:27)
According to the Saudi Press Agency, as recently as 1950 the number of pilgrims during Hajj was less than 100,000. That number doubled by 1955, and in 1972 it had reached 645,000.
In 1983, the number of pilgrims coming from abroad exceeded one million for the first time. Due to the rapidly increasing numbers, in 1988 the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) passed a resolution to specify a pilgrims' quota for each country according to its population.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has hosted over 1 million pilgrims from abroad as well as another million from within the Kingdom. The vast majority arrive by air (through the gateway city of Jeddah), with a small percentage arriving by land or sea.
Today, pilgrims come from all corners of the earth. Their organized groups are met by air-conditioned buses, travel with experienced guides, and stay in the many 5-star hotels around Mecca. Even the rites of the pilgrimage are more comfortable, with courtyards sheltered from the sun, air-conditioned walkways, escalators to the roof of the mosque, and cool marble floors on which to pray.
The Saudi government has spent nearly $25 billion on renovating and expanding the facilities for pilgrims. The worshippers fill all three levels, including the roof of the Mosque, and still spill onto the terraces, plazas, and streets in the surrounding area.
One might wonder if all the modernity has changed the Hajj experience, and made it less spiritual. Of course, those who travel today do not have the benefit of knowing what things were like before. Perhaps one type of hardship (traveling by foot in the desert heat) has been replaced by another (keeping safe and patient in the mass of people). But unanimously, those who have gone for Hajj come back speechless, unable to find the words to describe their experience. "You just have to be there to understand" is the common response to questions. While the facilities and terrain may have changed in modern times, the rites of pilgrimage and the bonds of brotherhood among the pilgrims have remained the same throughout history. Where else on earth can you find millions of people, different in language, race, color, gender, culture - but united in faith and purpose, acting with complete goodwill, discipline, generosity and brotherhood. That is the unique Hajj experience.