In the beginning, they came “on foot and on every lean camel”, according to one Quranic verse. Today, the pilgrims fulfilling their once-in-a-lifetime commitment to undertake the Hajj are more likely to arrive by air.
However the two million believers now embarking on five days of spiritual renewal have travelled, they are becoming as one with a holy tradition that stretches back, unbroken, for centuries as they follow the steps first taken by Prophet Mohammed.
Hajj is a time for introspection as Muslim pilgrims begin their spiritual journey in the company of believers from all around the world. Despite cultural differences and language barriers, they are united by their faith in God and Prophet Mohammed. This year Muslims from more than 150 different nations have passed through King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
Every step of the modern pilgrim's path is smoothed by technology, from the innovative Makkah Route process, which allows travellers to complete immigration checks in their home country, to the battery of sophisticated passport-control and biometric systems that ensure they are welcomed and ushered quickly on their way upon arrival in Saudi Arabia. For the vast majority, this will be their first visit to the holy sites. The official Manasikana app will help pilgrims to navigate through the five stages of Hajj, while universal wifi and 4G coverage ensures they can remain in contact with distant families.
For pilgrims from faraway countries, travelling to Makkah was once an arduous journey by camel train, exposing them for months on end to the hardships and dangers of the desert.
As early as the eighth century, however, a road with rest houses and forts was constructed to ease the 1,400km journey from Iraq to Makkah. In 1908, the Hejaz railway was inaugurated to carry pilgrims the 1,320km from Damascus to Medina. Just after the Second World War, one of the first flights operated by the Kingdom’s fledging national airline carried pilgrims from Palestine to Jeddah.
Technology, in other words, has long been integral to the Hajj. Far from divorcing the experience of the modern pilgrim from that of the generations in whose footsteps they tread, the innovations of today serve only to reinforce a continuity of devotion and progress that spans the ages.
Today, those who have undertaken to make the great journey of a lifetime are as one with their predecessors as they are with each other, the highest and lowest levelled and united in pursuit of the same purpose. As they renew their commitment to the higher ideals of their faith, Muslims around the world will be wishing them well on their timeless spiritual journey.