Hajj Caravans and the Journey to Mecca

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In the old days pligrims rode in camel caravans or took dhows to reach Mecca. In Ottoman times many pilgrims rode on the Hijaz Railway from Damascus to Medina. Today pilgrims board ferries from Port Sudan in Sudan to Jedda or fly from airports such as Heathrow. According to the British Museum: “From the furthest reaches of the Islamic world, pilgrims have made the spiritual journey that is the ambition of a lifetime. As Hajj needs to be performed at a designated time, historically pilgrims moved together in convoys. In the past the journey could be extremely dangerous. Pilgrims often fell ill or were robbed on the way and became destitute. However, pilgrims do not fear dying on Hajj. It is believed that those who die on Hajj will go to heaven with their sins erased. Today, pilgrims can get on an airplane to reach Saudi Arabia, making the journey in contrast with the past quick and less arduous. [Source: British Museum =]

The Qur’an states that Hajj should take place ‘in the specified months’, and these are the last three months of the Muslim calendar, known as Miqat Zamani (fixed times). Although the main acts of the Hajj take place in five days during the twelfth month, a pilgrim can start going into consecration (ihram) for Hajj earlier, from the beginning of the tenth month (Shawwal). The Muslim calendar is lunar, which means that the Hajj takes place progressively across all four seasons over time rather than in the full heat of summer every year. On foot, by camel, boat, train or airplane, going on Hajj is a spiritual endeavour that begins at home and culminates in Mecca; in going, arriving, and returning, the pilgrim is mindful of the magnitude of the journey and the reward in this world and the hereafter. =

Ibn Battuta (1304–68) wrote: I set out by myself with no companion to cheer me along or any caravan to join with, compelled by an overwhelming urge and long held desire in my heart to visit these famous sanctuaries. So I confirmed my decision to leave everyone dear to me …and flew from my home as birds desert their nests.

“Pilgrims quarrelling from the Kulliyat of Sa‘di” is painting dated 1566. It shows a convoy of pilgrims head to Mecca on camel, horseback and foot. The wealthier pilgrims are carried in elaborate palanquins. They are watched by onlookers who peek out from behind the hills. The painting illustrates a poem by the celebrated sage and poet Sa‘di (d. 1292), who probably performed Hajj several times. The narrator of the poem overhears a man on a camel saying to his companion: "If a pawn travels the length of the chessboard it becomes a queen, and so becomes better; but these travellers to Hajj on foot have crossed the desert and have become worse." The narrator, himself a foot-traveller, admonishes the camel-rider with the words: "You are no pilgrim! Your camel is the real one: poor creature, he eats thorns and carries loads."

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline islamonline.net ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding ispu.org; Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline

Preparing for the Hajj Journey

Mecca in 1910

Evliya Çelebi (1611–85) wrote: “One blessed night... I dreamed that I saw the Holy Prophet in person... he raised his veil, revealing his beauteous countenance, smiled, and said “My intercession and my travel and my pilgrimage, may God give you health and well-being."

According to the British Museum: “Pilgrims often feel called to go on Hajj and in the Islamic tradition pilgrims to Mecca consider themselves to be guests of God. Sometimes this invitation comes in the form of a dream. Pilgrims respond to God’s call by laying aside all other preoccupations in their daily lives. Before embarking on Hajj, pilgrims must settle all debts, make provision for any dependents and ask forgiveness from others. [Source: British Museum =]

Guide to the rituals of Hajj (c. 1420-25) is guide to the rituals of Hajj (manasik) according to the four schools of Islamic law, (Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Hanbali and Maliki) was dedicated to the Mamluk Sultan al-Mu’ayyad (ruled 1412 – 21) and later owned by the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt Jaqmaq Abu Sa‘id (ruled 1438 – 53), whose name appears in the illumination. Known for his piety, he commissioned charitable works across Egypt, Syria and in the holy cities. The purpose of the book was to provide guidance on how to perform the rituals of Hajj correctly. =

“Modern guide books known as manasik are an important tool to help the pilgrim understand the Hajj and the meaning behind its rituals. A pilgrim will study a guide before departure but will also refer to the text during Hajj. This example describes the stages of Hajj in detail and the prayers to be recited at each stop. Its format means that it can be carried conveniently round the neck. =

“Pilgrims often take a volume of prayers with them to Mecca. These books contain prayers taken from the Qur’an and sayings from the Prophet Muhammad. These collections help pilgrims express their thoughts and feelings and to structure their prayers in order to achieve the most spiritual blessings (baraka) whilst on Hajj.

Hajj Caravans and Routes

According to Associated Press: In the Middle Ages, Muslim rulers organized massive caravans with armed escorts that would depart from Cairo, Damascus and other cities. It was an arduous journey through deserts where Bedouin tribes carried out raids and demanded tribute. A notorious Bedouin raid in 1757 wiped out an entire Hajj caravan, killing thousands of pilgrims. [Source: Associated Press., June 26, 2023]

In 1876 an English journalist named Charles Doughty joined a Hajj caravan with 6,000 pilgrims and 10,000 animals on its journey south from Damascus. Muslims who died on the trek, he said, were buried under mounds covered by the blankets and clothes that belonged to the dead. Beside some graves were left makeshift tables used to wash the bodies before they were buried.

Describing the start of the caravan, Doughty wrote: “The tents were dismantled, the camels led in ready to their companies, and halted beside their loads. We waited to hear the cannon shot which should open the year’s pilgrimage. It was near ten o’clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder, litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts...and the thousands of riders, all born in the caravan countries, mounted in silence...At the second gun, fired a few moments after, the Pasha’s litter advances and after him goes the head of the caravan column...then we strike our camels and the great caravan is moving.”

According to the British Museum: “When pilgrims undertake the Hajj journey, they follow in the footsteps of millions before them. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of believers from over 70 nations arrive in Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year, completing a journey faster and in some ways less arduous than it often was in the past. Those travelling overland by camel and on foot congregated at three central points: Kufa (Iraq), Damascus (Syria) and Cairo (Egypt). Pilgrims coming by sea would enter Arabia at the port of Jedda. This section focuses on the major routes used by pilgrims in the past: the Arabian, the African, the Ottoman, and the Indian routes. [Source: British Museum =]

Arrival at the Miqat of Dhu al-Hulayfa (Qaisra Khan, 2010): “There are five fixed places known as Miqat within a radius of Mecca, which pilgrims must not cross before they are in a state of Ihram if they are intending to perform the Hajj or ‘Umra. Dhu al-Hulayfa, more than 300 km from Mecca, is one for those who approach Mecca from Medina. The others are Juhfa (190 km to the north-west), Qarn al-Manazil (90 km to the east), Dhat ‘Irq (85 km to the north-east) and Yalamlan (50 km to the south-east).

Saharan caravan

Arabian Route (Baghdad – Kufa – Mecca)

Ibn Jubayr (1145–1217) wrote: The pilgrims poured out the water they had and took of this good water, rejoicing at its abundance. The people took joy in swimming and bathing in it and washing their garments. It was for them a day of rest upon the journey, a gift bestowed by God. [Source: British Museum =]

Matt Bigg of the British Museum wrote: “The 900 mile road from Kufa to Mecca was one of the earliest routes created specifically for pilgrims. The pilgrim routes generally followed the ancient trade routes across Arabia. The Darb Zubayda (Zubayda’s Road) is the most significant of the early routes and was extensively developed during the era of the Abbasid caliphs (750–1258), whose capital was Baghdad.

Milestone (about 700 – 800, Hijaz) is inscribed in Arabic with the words: ‘Eight miles and this is two thirds of the road from al-Kufa’. As part of the care of the Darb Zubayda, succeeding caliphs had milestones placed all along the route to help pilgrims work out how far they had travelled. Very few of the milestones have survived. This example was found in the vicinity of Rabadha by the explorer and Muslim convert Harry St. John Philby. [Source: National Museum, Riyadh]

Gravestone (c. 900, Mecca): It was common for pilgrims from all over the Muslim world to go on Hajj and to remain and die in Mecca. Such individuals are known as mujawirun. This gravestone from the Ma‘la cemetery in Mecca states: "This is the grave of Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allah al-Basri al-Sarraf, may God grant him mercy". [Source: National Museum, Riyadh]

Rabadha was an important way station along the Darb Zubayda. It developed into an important city which flourished until the 10th century. Excavations begun in 1979 by King Saud University that uncovered houses, mosques, wells, cisterns, a cemetery and a range of different objects including those shown here. Camel bones were one of the most important materials used for writing in early Islam and camels were plentiful at al-Rabadha. Written in black ink and using a reed pen, the inscriptions are in a form of early Arabic script and probably refer to business transactions. On the smaller fragment the word ‘Allah’ can be deciphered at the top. The ink well is part of a wooden writing box and still contains the remains of its ink.

African Route (Timbuktu – Cairo – Mecca)

Moor pilgrims returning from the Hajj

Matt Bigg of the British Museum wrote: “Cairo was a hub for pilgrims travelling to Mecca from North and West Africa. Pilgrims would travel together in great caravans for safety. The Hajj route from Cairo to Mecca rose to prominence in the Mamluk era (1250–1517). The Mamluk sultans ruled from Cairo and had control over the Hijaz and the holy cities. In addition to the pilgrims from Egypt, the convoys also included the Hajj caravans from North and West Africa. [Source: British Museum =]

“The custom of the caravan is to travel much and rest little...except in some places where for respect of water they sometimes rest a day and a half to refresh themselves. Otherwise both man and beast would die.

Before the 19th century, pilgrimage from Africa was principally associated with routes across the Sahara. Islam first came to West Africa by means of the Saharan routes through the commencement of trade with the Islamic world and it was by way of these routes that the first pilgrims made their way to Mecca on the Hajj. During the Mamluk era (1250-1517), the main gathering point for pilgrims from West Africa was Timbuktu, the great medieval city of learning. The main route from Cairo took them across the arduous terrain of the Sinai Desert to ‘Aqaba then down the Red Sea. The town of Tadmekka in northern Mali is widely recognized as one of the first important trading places of the Islamic trans-Saharan trade. The meaning of its name – ‘resemblance to Mecca’ – testifies to its importance as both a locality on the pilgrimage route and as a centre of early Islam in West Africa. =

“From about 1350, Catalan chartmakers began to create Mediterranean-centred maps that blended the coastal precision and political information of the mariner’s chart with figurative decoration and historical, ethnographical, botanical, zoological and religious inscriptions derived from medieval world maps (mappae mundi). Such maps were intended for libraries and served as prestigious gifts. The best-known, the so-called Catalan Atlas in the Bibliothèque Nationale (see next entry) may have been presented to Charles V of France in 1375. This late example in the British Library, created in a Spanish-ruled city, contains most of the characteristics. These include a stylized rendering of Mecca (Lamecha), marked by a banner with a crescent, and depictions of a succession of predominantly Muslim African rulers whose ‘capitals’ are shown as minute walled towns in the vicinity. Though all but the fictitious Christian ruler Prester John are generalized here, the Catalan Atlas identifies one of the kings as Mansa Musa of Mali (see detail). =

“This atlas is attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques (1325–87), who was in the service of the king of Aragon. It is one of the few surviving examples of medieval cartography. It is richly illustrated and covers an area stretching from the Atlantic to China and from Scandinavia to the Rio Oro in Africa in six parchment-covered wooden panels. Several sovereigns are portrayed in this section, including the famous king of Mali, "Musse Melly" (Mansa Musa), who holds a sceptre ornamented with a fleur-de-lys and a golden disc. He was known to control a large part of Africa, from Gambia and Senegal to Gao on the Niger, and had access to some of its richest gold deposits.

Hajj Journey by al-Futi (Timbuktu)


According to the British Museum: “Timbuktu was an important centre of learning in medieval times. It had a university and a tradition of producing manuscripts on subjects such as science, law, medicine, history and religion. The Hajj was key to this transfer of knowledge. Returning pilgrims contributed both ideas and travel accounts, which were copied and stored in libraries. The manuscripts are unbound and copied in black and red inks in the scripts typical of West Africa. [Source: British Museum =]

“‘Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi (d. 1864) was a renowned scholar, social activist and sheikh in the Tijani Sufi order, known as al-Hajj ‘Umar Tal. This is an account of his Hajj, which he undertook with his family in 1827. It is written in Sudani script and dated 1279/1863. On his return from Mecca,’ Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi visited Jerusalem, Syria and Egypt, earning a reputation for piety and learning. He is said to have led the prayer in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, cured the son of a sultan from madness in Syria, and astonished scholars in Cairo by his vast erudition. On his return through Fazan, his wife Maryam and brother fell ill and died. During this time’ Umar ibn Sa‘id al-Futi successfully mediated between the warring kingdoms of Bornu and Satku.

Ottoman Route (Istanbul – Damascus – Mecca)

“Evliya Çelebi (1611–85) wrote: “From fear of not arriving on time, no rest is permitted from Muzayrib [outside Damascus] ... everyone kept on walking while munching on a biscuit from his own scrip. Even the camels were fed balls of dough while walking. We kept flowing like a human stream. =

Matt Bigg of the British Museum wrote: “During the rule of the Ottoman sultans, the ceremonies surrounding the departure of the Hajj caravans from Istanbul were at their most spectacular. The main hub for this route was Damascus drawing pilgrims from across the Ottoman Empire and beyond. [Source: British Museum =]

“Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, the Ottomans took charge of the Hajj. They took control of the Hijaz and the holy cities and each year they spent vast sums on protecting the caravans, maintaining the routes and taking care of the holy sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina. =

“The Ottoman Hajj caravan was known as the sürre, meaning "the imperial purse". Great ceremonies took place before the sultan in Topkapi Palace in the Ottoman capital Istanbul on the day of its departure. Pilgrims from Istanbul travelled across Turkey to Damascus, the official starting point of the Ottoman Hajj, where they were joined by pilgrims from across the empire and further east from Central Asia. The route from Damascus took 34 days. Along the way a network of forts protected pilgrims’ water supplies. =

“A detailed map of Istanbul shows the city, the Golden Horn, the lower Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the Princes’ Islands and the Anatolian shore. Pilgrims leaving Besiktas below Topkapi Palace (on the left) would go by boat to Üsküdar, shown here with its landing station projecting into the Bosphorus. Close by (not marked) is the Fountain of Departure where pilgrims would bid farewell to their loved ones. Evliya Çelebi describes Üsküdar as ‘in the territory of the Holy Land’. From here began the long road to Damascus. The map is a version of one drawn by the celebrated Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis (died around 1555). It is part of a series in a volume called Kitab-i bahriye (Book of Navigation). =

Hejaz Railway in 1914

The departure of the sürre caravan took place with great ceremony in Topkapi Palace before the Ottoman sultan. Here we see the caravan preparing to cross the Bosphorus from Besiktas to Üsküdar on the Asian side. It is headed by the usher who organised the procession. He is followed by key functionaries, including the Captain of the sürre (far right), who was responsible for organising the Hajj itself. A camel carries the mahmal. A reserve camel follows. These camels were purely ceremonial and did not travel with the rest to Mecca. There are musicians, entertainers and mules bearing gifts. The Tableau Général was written by Ignace Mouradgea d’Ohsson, an Armenian banker living in Istanbul. Lavishly illustrated, it describes the history and customs of the Ottomans. =

“On Hajj groups of pilgrims would often carry banners. This red silk banner was carried from North Africa by members of the Qadiriyya order founded by the 12th century mystic ‘Abd al-Qader al-Gailani. It is decorated with typical designs and floral patterns from Ottoman art and in style it is similar to an Ottoman war banner. The Qur’anic text on the two-bladed sword is from the chapter of Victory (Qur’an 48 - al-Fath: 1-3). The inscriptions in the central square, in the North African style of script known as maghribi, confirm its use on Hajj. It includes the words: "Were it not for him [the Prophet] there would be no pilgrimage and no place of pebbles; were it not for him there would be no circumambulation; neither man nor jinn would have come to Safa to drink from Zamzam". =

“The Road to Mecca (1672), an engraving by Gaspar Bouttats after Jan Peeters, is an imaginary scene depicts a Hajj camel caravan proceeding from Istanbul and about to approach the holy cities. Peeters was one of a number of Flemish artists interested in depicting Middle Eastern locations drawn from fantasy or inspired by prints, in what was a growing taste for the exotic. The principal locations are marked in Dutch.

Attacks on the Damascus-Mecca Hajj Caravan

During the Ottoman era (1517–1917), as in previous periods, Muslim pilgrims from the Levant and Anatolia assembled in Damascus and travel together in a caravan stocked with goods and foodstuffs to Mecca under an armed guard led by the amir al-hajj (commander of the Hajj caravan). The armed guard was present mainly to protect the caravan from Bedouin assaults as it traversed various Bedouin tribes' territories in the desert. Major looting raids against the caravan normally occurred when the tribes were experiencing economic hardships. Under normal circumstances, The Bedouin would typically be paid off by the amir al-hajj through a sarr (tribute) payment in return for safe passage through their territory. Many times, despite payment of the sarr, the Bedouin tribes looted the caravan nonetheless.[Source: Wikipedia]

In the decades prior to the 1757 raid described below, the predominant Bedouin tribes in the region traversed by the Damascus-Mecca caravan were the Bani Sakher and the smaller tribes of the Bani Aqil, the Bani Kulayb and the Sardiyah. However, beginning in the early 18th century, the much larger Anizzah tribe from Najd overran the Syrian Desert, displacing the other tribes. Consequently, the Ottoman commanders leading the Hajj gradually transferred the traditional duties normally entrusted with the Bani Sakher and its allies to the Anizzah. This deprived the former of a major income source and the religiously prestigious role of protecting the Muslim pilgrims.The Bani Sakher and the Anizzah partook in joint raids against the Hajj caravan in 1700 and 1703. The financial hardship of the Bani Sakher and the lesser tribes was exacerbated by a severe drought in 1756 and 1757.

1757 Hajj Caravan Raid That Left Thousands Dead

The 1757 Hajj caravan raid was the plunder and massacre of the Hajj caravan of 1757 on its return to Damascus from Mecca by Bedouin tribesmen. The caravan was under the protection of an Ottoman force led by the Wali of Damascus, Husayn Pasha, and his deputy Musa Pasha, while the Bedouin were led by Qa'dan al-Fayez of the Bani Sakher tribe. An estimated 20,000 pilgrims were either killed or died of hunger or thirst as a result of the raid. Although Bedouin raids on the Hajj caravan were fairly common, the 1757 raid was deadliest and "most famous" and caused a crisis in the Ottoman Government. [Source: Wikipedia]

As the caravan set off from Mecca for its return to Syria, the caravan's smaller advance guard under commander Musa Pasha was assaulted by Bani Sakher tribesmen commanded by Qa'dan al-Fayez at al-Qatranah, in central modern-day Jordan. The guard was plundered and dispersed, with soldiers fleeing south to Ma'an, southwest to Gaza, west to Jerusalem and north to the Hauran plain. Musa Pasha was personally attacked and managed to escape to the Hauran town of Daraa "nude and barefooted", according to historian Abbud al-Sabbagh. Musa later died of his wounds.

Surviving soldiers of the advance guard arrived at Damascus to alert the authorities, who afterward dispatched a relief guard to support the main caravan, which by late September had reached the northern Hejaz town of Tabuk. The relief guard was attacked by the tribesmen at an area between al-Qatranah and Ma'an, and was not able to proceed much further than the Balqa plain. Husayn Pasha had also been alerted of the advance guard's plunder and the relief guard's dispersal, and attempted to reach out to Sheikh Qa'dan. Husayn Pasha's representatives offered Sheikh Qa'dan a bribe in exchange for safe passage to Damascus, but were rebuffed.

The caravan's provisions were running low, and Husayn Pasha departed Tabuk with the caravan in late October with knowledge that the Bani Sakher and allied tribesmen, including the smaller Sardiyah, Bani Aqil and Bani Kulayb, awaited them on the route. On the third day of Husayn Pasha's march, the Bedouin tribesmen launched their assault on the caravan between Tabuk and Dhat al-Hajj. According to historian F. E. Peters, the site of the assault was Hallat Ammar, on the Tabuk-Ma'an road at the border between modern-day Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

At the immediate outset of the raid, numerous pilgrims were killed. The Bedouin tribesmen plundered the caravan of its remaining provisions and goods and withdrew. Among the looted items was the highly decorated mahmal (litter) that represented the sovereignty of the Ottoman Sultan. Some 20,000 pilgrims were either killed by the attackers, died of their wounds, or died of hunger or thirst on the way back to Damascus. Among the dead pilgrims was one of the sisters of the Sultan himself. Husayn Pasha survived, but did not return to Damascus, fearing for his safety. The 18th-century Damascus-based chronicler Ahmed al-Budeiri recorded that pilgrims, men and women, were stripped of their clothing and left naked in the desert by the Bedouin raiders.

The raid shocked people across the Ottoman Empire, and the authorities in Damascus and the Ottoman capital, Istanbul. Sultan Osman Mustafa III punished a number of imperial and provincial officials he held responsible for failing to secure the caravan. Husayn Pasha was immediately dismissed as amir al-hajj. Husayn Pasha's imperial patron and an official with some responsibilities regarding the Hajj caravan, the kizlar agha Aboukouf, was arrested, exiled to Rhodes and executed. Aboukouf's severed head was placed outside the imperial palace in Istanbul.

Hijaz Railway

According to the British Museum: “ In 1900, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876–1909) put out an appeal to Muslims of the world to support the building of a railway connecting Damascus to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Built by public subscription and with the advice of German engineers, the line from Damascus reached Medina in 1908. Pilgrims who embarked from Haydarpasa station in Istanbul could now travel all the way to Medina by rail. This reduced the journey from almost forty days to five. Thousands of pilgrims from Russia, Central Asia, Iran and Iraq also converged on Damascus to take the train. The railway never reached Mecca and during the Arab Revolt (1916–18) against the Ottomans during the First World War, parts of the railway were blown up by Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab allies. Some sections of the railway in Jordan are still in use today. [Source: British Museum =]

Hejaz Railway

Sultan Abdülhamid II (ruled 1876 –1909) was the driving force behind the construction of the Hijaz Railway. In addition to carrying Muslim pilgrims to the Holy Cities, the railway was part of a propaganda campaign to assert the sultan’s position as the main political and spiritual authority in the Muslim world. The production of postcards of Sultan Abdülhamid II was part of this propaganda drive. This postcard was owned by the Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857 –1936), who probably acquired it during his visit to Istanbul in 1908.

This plan for the projected route of the Hijaz Railway was made by the Ottoman official Hajji Mukhtar Bey during his Hajj. He travelled via the old Damascus to Mecca route so that he could plot the course of the new railway. The final plan was compiled by the Captain of the Artillery ‘Umar Zaki and Lieutenant Hasan Mu‘ayyin in the Printing Works of the Ministry of Marine in Istanbul.

“Arthur Wavell (1882–1916) wrote: “We were now in Arabia and as we proceeded the aspect of the country became even wilder. High mountain ranges appeared on either side, and the great pinnacles of rock became twisted and uncanny in appearance. The track wound through gloomy gorges over which huge rocks hung menacingly.

Across the Indian Ocean

Matt Bigg of the British Museum wrote: “The port of Jedda is the gateway to Mecca for pilgrims from South and Southeast Asia and Africa. They arrived in their thousands on dhows and steamships. Jedda has been the main port for Mecca since the mid-seventh century. Thousands of pilgrims arrived here from ports across the Indian Ocean, such as Bombay and Singapore, and from as far as China. Pilgrims also sailed to Jedda from southern Arabia and the Gulf and the main African ports on the Red Sea – Qusair, Suakin and Port Sudan. In Jedda the pilgrims were housed in hostels owned by religious foundations. They then set off eastwards to Mecca, a 40-mile journey by camel or on foot which took about two days. Today, Jedda airport is the main arrival point for pilgrims worldwide. [Source: British Museum =]

“The Journey from India to Jedda was a very hazardous one. When Indian ships approached the coast of the Arabian Sea they encountered violent waves. Piracy was also one of the major hazards mentioned by Muslim sources. Therefore the return of pilgrims is an occasion of joyous celebration for the completion of a spiritual experience and also for safe arrival. =

boarding a ship in Tandjong Priok, West Java for a trip to the Hajj

Before the invention of the steamship, pilgrims travelled from India, China and South East Asia on dhows and other sailing ships across the Indian Ocean. These journeys were governed by the monsoon winds and were long and often dangerous. The shift from sail to steamships during the 19th century made the journey quicker and cheaper. It also coincided with the expansion of Dutch colonial rule in Southeast Asia over the Muslim population. These Dutch colonies comprised the territories of present-day Indonesia. The Dutch were concerned that the Hajj provided a conduit for resistance to their rule particularly in Aceh, and they instituted a strict system of permits for pilgrims wanting to go on Hajj. The main embarkation point for these pilgrims was the port of Singapore. =

“Jedda to Mecca: Across the Indian Ocean (1677– 80, Gujarat, India) is a set illustrations that start on the left with the port of Surat north of Bombay which was the main point of embarkation for the pilgrims. It is orientated to the south and the ships are about to depart. Having crossed the Indian Ocean they enter the Arabian Sea, here called the Sea of Oman. They travel in convoy in ocean-going dhows. The smaller boats are perhaps there to guide them as they are entering dangerous coastal waters. After entering the Red Sea, the first port is that of Mocha in Yemen, famous for its association with the export of coffee. Finally they reach Jedda, the port of Mecca. [Source: Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, MSS 1025 fols 2b, 3b, 21a, 22b]

A Chart of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (c. 1835, Gujarat, India) chart was probably used by Indian navigators on ships which transported pilgrims to Mecca for Hajj. The map depicts the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, with Jedda on the far left. Different types of ship are depicted which are shown on marked directional lines. Key features of interest to sailors including islands, reefs, and flags of local rulers, are annotated in Gujarati and Hindi. Some places, such as Kamaran Island, the location of a quarantine station, are noted in English. The inner channel along the Arabian coast was notoriously difficult to navigate. This chart was presented to Sir Alexander Burnes in 1835 by a pilot from Kutch in Gujarat. Its Gujarati maker is unknown. [Source: Royal Geographical Society, mr Asia S.4]

The encampment of the caravan of pilgrims From India and Iran (1677 –1680, Gujarat, India) is a page from Anis al-hujjaj, "The Pilgrim’s Companion", by Safi ibn Wali. The author describes the groups of pilgrims he meets en route to Hajj. He says that the Iranian pilgrims entered the Hijaz either through the port of Kung (down the coast from Bushehr) or through Baghdad and Najaf. "They were simple and appeared to be poor, worried by their outward condition… however they were excusable in this regard due to their helplessness and modesty. They suffered… because they could not come here if they did not get surety".

Modern Travel to the Hajj

About 1 million pilgrims arrive by land, with about two thirds of these coming from within Saudi Arabia. More than 1.5 million people arrive by plane on 5,000 or so flights that arrive mostly at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. During the Hajj regular flights are suspended while special pilgrim flights operate around the clock. Saudi Arabian Airlines alone carries about 555,000 passengers from around the world. The Saudi government sets a deadline for pilgrims arriving by air to maintain some order. Even so clearing customs can take 16 hours or more.

Some airplanes go to and from Mecca almost 24 hours a day. My sister in law worked as a stewardess for Saudi Airlines, and said around the time of Hajj she barely had time to sleep while the planes ferried pilgrims to Jeddah airport nearly non-stop. I was once on a plane that stopped for refueling in Jeddah during the Hajj. It was very strange watching hundreds of toga-clad pilgrims climb off of 747's and step into ultra-modern buses at the mega-modern airport.

Some Muslims argue that charter flights have had devalued the pilgrimage by making it too easy. They advocate a return to the more arduous and challenging overland journey which they say is more spiritually enriching.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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