The Real Mecca

Once a year, pilgrims from across the globe become a single nation. An American joins them.

Mecca, the best-known Arabic word in English, is more than an advertising slogan, as in "tourist Mecca." Mecca is a modern mountain city of 1 million people in western Saudi Arabia. Because only Muslins go there, outsiders don't know much about it.

Yet once a year, for a few short weeks, Mecca attracts more visitors than almost any spot on Earth. I'm heading there this evening as the sun sets over the Red Sea, flying on a jumbo jet with hundreds of other pilgrims, on my way to perform the hajj, or pilgrimage. Today most visitors arrive by air. In other ways, however, this is a journey into the past. Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, is steeped in history and legend We are going back into the past for a few days, to recover some of our own original spirit, by walking in the paths of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Hagar, and the millions of pilgrims who have come here before us.


Leaving the airport, our bus climbs treeless mountains for an hour. We're dressed in timeless-looking garments; the women in simple robes of black or white, the men reduced to two lengths of unstitched cotton. It's hard to tell a sweeper from a prince. We take a vow as we don these clothes to regard Mecca as a sanctuary and to treat other pilgrims gently, with respect.

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