My friend said in her house, the family watches the Hajj on TV for most of the day. The Hajj is a pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. My friend said Hajj can be very strenuous, so much so that sometimes elderly people have died during it. It is also said to be very expensive so many people cannot afford to go. There are five pillars (or holy acts) that are part of Islam and Hajj is the fifth pillar, so for those who an afford to go and are fit enough to do the Hajj, they fulfill the fifth pillar by the pilgrimage. My Egyptian friend said her father had done the Hajj and said it was an incredible experience. My Turkish friend, also Muslim, said her grandfather had done it. It is considered a great honor and a very holy thing to participate in.
The Hajj is a five day event that has drawn more than 2.5 million people to Mecca this year. It is one of the biggest religious events in the world.
Here are some photos of the Hajj I found in an article:
Here are a couple maps to show you where Mecca is and what the path of the Hajj is once people get there.
The newspaper article at this link explains what the rituals are for each step of the Hajj:
The journey must take place during the last month of the Islamic year to fulfill the fifth pillar. When those doing the journey arrive at the boundary of Mecca, they are to be in a state of purity which is symbolized by men wearing white seamless sheets and sandals. (I saw many women on TV doing the hajj wearing all black.) This form of dress eliminates any indicator of class or wealth so there is equality among all and unity. This is a chance for Muslims from all over the world to unite in prayer.
The history of the Hajj is based on the story of Prophet Ibrahim. The BBC newspaper article at this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/practices/hajj_1.shtml
summarizes the story of Ibrahim:
"Four thousand years ago the valley of Mecca was a dry and uninhabited place.
Muslims believe the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) was instructed to bring his wife, Hajira (Hagar) and their child Is'mail to Arabia from Palestine to protect them from the jealousy of Ibrahim's first wife Sarah.
Allah told the Prophet Ibrahim to leave them on their own, and he did so, with some supplies of food and water. However the supplies quickly ran out and within a few days Hajira and Is'mail were suffering from hunger and dehydration.
In her desperation Hajira ran up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa trying to see if she could spot any help in the distance. Finally she collapsed beside Is'mail and prayed to Allah for deliverance.
Is'mail struck his foot on the ground and this caused a spring of water to gush forth from the earth. Hajira and Is'mail were saved. Now they had a secure water supply they were able to trade water with passing nomads for food and supplies.
After a while the Prophet Ibrahim returned from Palestine to check on his family and was amazed to see them running a profitable well.
The Prophet Ibrahim was told by Allah to build a shrine dedicated to him. Ibrahim and Is'mail constructed a small stone structure - the Kaaba or Cube - which was to be the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in Allah.
As the years passed Is'mail was blessed with Prophethood and he gave the nomads of the desert the message of surrender to Allah.
After many centuries, Mecca became a thriving city thanks to its reliable water source, the well of Zam Zam.
Gradually, the people began to adopt polytheistic ideas, and worship spirits and many different gods. The shrine of the Prophet Ibrahim was used to store idols.
After many years, Allah told the Prophet Muhammed that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of Allah only.
In the year 628 the Prophet Muhammed set out on a journey with 1400 of his followers. This was the first pilgrimage in Islam, and would re-establish the religious traditions of the Prophet Ibrahim."
The cube in the picture below is the restored (or maybe it's symbolic of) the Kaaba or Cube discussed above. This cube sets the direction for all Muslims to prayer toward worldwide.
Picture of the Hajj in Mecca (found online)
The crowds during the Hajj have sometimes resulted in stampedes at this one particular bridge which was the scene of 251 deaths in 2004 and then 367 again in 2006. See articles at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4607770.stm or this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4609254.stm
The latter article has a timeline showing Hajj tragedies from 1987 until 2006 which document more than 3,000 deaths. Much work has been done on crowd control since then and I haven't seen reports of stampedes in recent years.
Here are a couple YouTube videos about the Hajj:
My Egyptian friend told me that going on Hajj purifies one's heart so that after returning from Hajj, it is as if they have the heart of a baby.
After the day of fasting, the Eid of Ul Adha will begin with early morning prayers before sunrise. If I have to stay up very late working on a project for school, I sometimes hear the morning prayer call at 4am or so. Jeff, Cameron and I have been invited to the morning prayer by an Egyptian family who has befriended us. They will be picking us up at 4:30am tomorrow. I had told them I would be interested in going to visit a mosque but didn't expect a 4:30am invitation. At first I was saying we'd prefer to visit at a later prayer call, but I heard one of the family members in the background whispering to his sister on the phone, "tell them it's like Christmas." Then I understood. This particular morning service is one of the most important services of the year for Muslims, so we are honored to be invited. I'll have to learn how to put on the headscarf for tomorrow.