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.

We leave more than fashion at the border. In some indescribable way we leave ourselves.

As the bus winds through town, I'm sitting next to a Bosnian student named Ali. "Sure, you have to be careful," he says. "Yes, the crowds are enormous. But look more closely. It's not your normal crowd." A glance out the window confirms this. Streams of men and women from 125 nations fill the sidewalks and streets. Yet no one is pushing. Everyone is flowing-a slow crowd, a patient crow. "You just have to get into the swim of it," he says. "The best place to do that is in the mosque."

Mecca's mosque is hard to miss. Its coliseum-size walls and bright, moon-rocket minarets tower above the streets from blocks away.

This vast temple complex can hold a million people. Most pilgrims arriving in Mecca come straight here. Even at midnight the mosque is in full swing. A hundred thousand people fill the ground floor colonnades. It takes me 15 minutes to pass from the outer gates to the core of the complex, where a white marble floor gleams under stadium lighting like an ice rink. This part of the mosque is open to the stars.

Here, I join a ring of 5,000 people surrounding a small, stone building draped in black: the Ka'bah, a windowless structure with simple lines that Muslims call God's first house of worship. The rest of the temple complex is a mere surrounding for this modest, ancient building. The Ka'bah marks the direction in which Muslims pray all their lives. Seeing it for the first time brings smiles and even tears to people's faces.

The human ring around the Ka'bah is moving counter-clockwise in a circuit called the Turning, a special form of walking prayer. Around we go seven times at a stately pace, while the still point of the Ka'bah towers above us. The movement of so many people in one direction sets up a soft, pervasive whisper on the floor, of clothes brushing skin, of bare feet over marble. The Turning continues day and night, with every pilgrim making seven rounds. Viewed from above, the people and building form a single figure--of God's House at the center of their lives.

My turns complete, I descend a nearby stair to the Well. It is cool and dim down here, with a pumping station and several hundred basins. This is the well without which Mecca would never have existed. (It is mentioned in the biblical Book of Genesis.) Like everybody else, I take a sip, then return upstairs to the last rite of the evening: a ritual jog between two hills on the far side of the mosque. As I move along, I remember the sweet tasting water. That's how it is in Mecca. You become a vessel into which timeless meanings are being poured.

A hundred thousand more people arrive each day. Mecca during hajj season bulges at the seams Ten thousand people will come from the United States alone. As the city swells, the streets become extensions of the mosque

One night I walk past a settlement of West Africans camped under a freeway overpass. All over town, people are strolling, meeting, taking tea, and shopping. It is a traveler's paradise.

On the eighth day of the month, the next stage of the pilgrimage begins. At sunrise, the whole population begins to leave town together, trooping five miles into the desert. We arrive to find a tent city on the sands. One hundred thousand attendants have been occupied for weeks setting up this and other canvas enclaves along the pilgrim route.

By evening the vast encampment bustles. I climb a hill for an overview. In the dark, the sands resemble a great harbor. Down there, bathed in lantern light, 2 million people have left their running water and solid walls for makeshift canvas dwellings in the desert. For the next few days we will lead a Bedouin existence, following a pilgrim route among the dunes, on a trip designed to remind us that life is a journey.

In the morning, our loose procession snakes a few miles farther east, to a sandy expanse called the Plain of Arafat. Here a second tent city has been erected, surrounding a craggy hill known as Mount Mercy. From this hill, the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. Today we surround Mount Mercy on all sides, camped in acres of quadrangles arranged by nation A quarter mile of Africa leads into a tract of Pakistan, giving way to an Indonesian district.

A brief congregational prayer at noon (imagine a small country bowing down simultaneously) precedes a short sermon from the hilltop. This is the spiritual apex of the hajj. Devoid of pomp, light or ceremony, the day-long Arafat vigil has few requirements.It is largely an internal experience, a day when pilgrims stand before their maker.

Throughout the camps, the mood is meditative. An Algerian elder squats in the shade of an ice truck, palms turned up in supplication. Across the way, a dozen Turkish women recite verses by the religious poet Jalal al-din Rumi, while a baby naps beneath a green umbrella. Over the hum of the crow, a chorus of men on the mount chants an ancient round: "I am here, Lord, I am here."

This sand plain is rich in historical fact and legend. Muslims from half a world away have been meeting here yearly without a break for 14 centuries. You see traces of this in the architecture. You hear it in the stories. For example:

The curve of a low stone aqueduct skims the valley rim for miles. It was placed here more than a thousand years ago by Queen Zubayda, the wife of Harun er-Raschid, caliph of Baghdad. (Readers may recall Harun from the Arabian Nights stories.) The aqueduct is still in use today.

A half-mile down the plain, a large mosque and courtyard stand at the crossing of several modern roads. Its minarets, green in the twilight, mark the spot of the ancient Namira mosque, a working temple in Muhammad's lifetime.

Arafat marks the outer limit of the hajj route. From here, the path loops back toward Mina Valley; pilgrims make the journey in two stages, pausing midway to overnight in a bowl of rocky hills called Muzdalifa. Super bowl gridlock is mild compared to the hajj's traffic jams. Half the pilgrims inch along in a hundred thousand trucks, buses, and cars. The distance-about three miles-may take three hours to cover.

Jubilant chanting fills the air as we move down a sandy grade into a riverbed. The banks of this dry channel are half a mile wide and packed with pilgrims. Stadium lighting along the way turns night to day and adds a theatrical glow. In about an hour, the hajj has transformed itself from a meditative vigil into a sweeping, medieval pageant.

Where the riverbed ends, we pour across a lighted plain, settling into another broad encampment on the plain a Muzdalifa. This most ascetic of stops on the Pilgrim Way is also the calmest and most peaceful.

At midnight we learn the Mina road has been closed temporarily. There's a bottleneck up ahead. The way is clogged.

A tiny human dot dressed in two towels, I'm standing near a pot of peppered stew, about to order a plate from the grinning cook, when I feel a stranger's hand slip into mine. It is the soft hand of an ancient Indian woman in a shawl. Her forehead, a foot below my shoulder, looks burned from her day in the sun. She's lost in the crowd, I realize, and running out of willpower.

Lacking a shared language, we make do with signs. Then she lifts my hand and we set off through the crowds, walking together for perhaps 10 minutes. Finally, I spot a kiosk marked "Missing Pilgrims." We go inside.The woman is asleep before I leave.

I wake on a mat under the stars at 2 a.m. The moon hangs low over the hills. On every crest, silhouetted pilgrims dot the skyline. I climb a stony path and join a Turkish family from Berlin. The father trains a flashlight on the ground. Now and then his son bends to pluck up a pebble, holding it to the moonlight. All over the valley, people are collecting tiny stones.

This strange, quite scene is in preparation for the last hajj rite. Tonight each pilgrim gathers 49 stones. In the morning we will carry them to Mina. There, in the next few days, at allotted times, we will throw them at a trio of pillars symbolizing Satan.

Gathering pebbles by moonlight? Stoning the Prince of Darkness? Yes, indeed. Scholars call it lapidation. In a symbolic act with a double thrust, the thrower of the stone both repulses temptation and casts it out. Hajj rules require that stones be tiny, "no bigger than a bean," for the point of the throw is symbolic, not to do harm

I wash my stones at a tap and, having no pockets, tie them into a corner of my towels. Three a.m. The road has reopened. The camps are stirring. The hajj is moving on.

I reach Mina at sunrise, but the mile-long concrete causeway leading to the pillars is already choked with pilgrims. I'm as eager as the rest to perform this rite, but the crowds make me cautious. The causeway, a recent addition to the hajj, is as wide as an eight-lane freeway. Halfway along, it is split into two levels, so that twice as many people may hurl their pebbles. There are no cars. Just the steady echo of innumerable tramping feet. Today our target is the largest pillar, a 50-foot concrete cone. Its broad base rests on the ground floor. Its upper portion pierces the roadway overhead. It is nondescript, like the causeway itself. The devil needs no decoration.

This first "throw," with its press of people and raining stones, creates some of the most frenzied and cathartic moments of the hajj. I wait on a stairway above, as the first rogue waves of enthusiasts roll towards their goal. At points, the crowd's impulsion can lift you off your feet. If you lose a shoe here, or drop your glasses, you don't even try to pick them up. Stopping, even pausing, is next to impossible. Indeed, pilgrims have died here from being trampled. For all its futuristic roadways, modern transport, and majestic mosques, the hajj is not a theme park

When the tide ebbs slightly, I join the crowd and move into its center It is dark in the lower level of its causeway. I catch sight of the pillar, and then we are upon it. From 15 feet away, people are rocketing their tiny pebbles with expressions of glee mixed with relief and exhaustion. Wrists snap. Eyes flash. Men and women are cutting in front of each other to get a clear shot at the giant cone. I'm near enough now to hear the soft nick nick of thousands of pebbles bouncing, then falling to the groundI complete my throws and follow the crowd's flow, spilling through an archway to our right. A minute later we're back in the sandy valley, blinking, sunstruck.

Two hours later, I'm standing on a tent-strewn, rocky hill overlooking Mina. It is mid-afternoon. We have thrown our stones and had a celebration. Now the camps are still.

This morning the Feast of Abraham began, marking the formal completion of the hajj. By now, every family has sacrificed a lamb from the acres of animals fenced behind the hillsides. The pilgrims are languorous. The meat they could not eat is already being packaged for freezing and shipping to poor families abroad. Like most hajj rites, today's feast commemorates a timeless story: in this case, the last-minute substitution of a sacrificial ram for Abraham's son, an event regard by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike as an act of divine mercy.

The desert march is over. Gazing down on this transitory scene, I am reminded how the hajj has changed its shape a dozen times. A circle dance, a run march, a picnic on the dunes, a turning, a running, a vigil, a throwing, a feast, and a sacrifice have all led by turns to a sense of completion that can't quite be expressed

But the pilgrims try. Mecca boasts more phone booths than any place I've seen. Long lines of pilgrims stand waiting on every corner to call home, to report the good news, to be congratulated: The hajj is over! We're back in town! We've made it! As the pilgrims' thoughts turn to home and loved ones, they embark on a shopping spree. From a street vendor's trinkets to the most expensive silks and diamonds, if the present comes from Mecca, it is special. The best gift of all is a jug of water from the Zamzam well. Mecca marks the heart of Islam; water is its essence. People back home will use it for special occasions only, a birth, a funeral, a marriage, saving even a small bottle for years.

. Once the three-day Feast concludes, tradition cautions pilgrims not to linger. As with any special place, staying too long may bring indifference. The idea is to leave Mecca before it leaves you. Jets depart daily by the hundreds; whole nations disappear before my eyes.

When my turn comes, I go down to the mosque again to say good-bye. This last hajj requirement is called the Farewell Circuit, seven final turns around the Ka'bahIt looks serene, reflected in white marble. Leaving the mosque, I turn back to see it one last time. I catch a bus out of town. Soon we are gliding down the mountain highway, heading back to the airport, leaving behind the city that has called us from so many corners of the Earth.

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