Why do millions gather in Mecca every year?

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1. Where social status is forgotten

Once a year Muslims from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. This sacred act is called Hajj. Every Muslim is expected to make the journey at least once in their lifetime if they are able.

During Hajj social status is forgotten, and all pilgrims are expected to wear the same simple white clothing and perform the same acts of worship.

One of these acts of worship is particularly astonishing: thousands of people swirl counter-clockwise, seven times, around the most famous shrine in the Muslim world - the Kaaba.

2. The black box

The Kaaba is a huge black stone structure that sits at the heart of the Grand Mosque, Islam's most sacred place of worship. Some of its parts are connected to important episodes in Islamic tradition. Click on the labels to find out more.

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On the eastern corner of the Kaaba, to the left of the door, is the Black Stone, which according to Muslim tradition fell from heaven at the time of Adam and Eve. During Hajj pilgrims try to kiss the stone, emulating the kiss the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have placed on it. But the rites and rituals of Hajj begin outside Mecca.

3. One step at a time

Devotees start their pilgrimage at one of the entry stations to Mecca.

Pilgrims wear simple white clothing called Ihram. They make a statement of intention for Umra (a minor pilgrimage) then begin reciting the Talbiya prayer, asserting their presence before God.

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Pilgrims make their way to the Masjid al-Haram mosque and walk around the Kaaba seven times repeating du'as and prayers. This is called the Tawaf. Afterwards devotees sip Zamzam water.

Rabi Karim Photography

Zam zam water

Zamzam water comes from the sacred Zamzam well, which is believed to have saved the Prophet Abraham's wife Hagar and son Ismael from dying of thirst.

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Pilgrims walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa.

Walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times completes the Umra portion of the Hajj. After which, rituals and some of the Ihram restrictions are relaxed.

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Aerial shot of tens of thousands of tents hosting pilgrims in Mina, near Mecca.

Now pilgrims travel to Mina on the eighth of Dhu al-Hijja (the month in which Hajj takes place) and remain there until dawn next morning. Pilgrims state their intention for the Hajj and put on their Ihram garments again.

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African Muslim pilgrims pray in the valley of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca.

Next, pilgrims travel to the valley of Arafat and stand in the open praising God. At the end of the day, they travel to Muzdalifa for the night.

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Muslim pilgrims throw stones, in a ritual called 'Jamarat'.

Pilgrims gather 49 or 70 small stones to use the next day. In the morning devotees return to Mina and throw the stones at pillars called Jamraat. The pillars represent the devil.

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A Muslim pilgrim rubs his freshly shaven head.

A lamb or sheep is slaughtered as a sacrifice and the meat is given to the poor. After this, men's heads are shaved and women cut a lock of their hair.

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Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the 'Jamarat' ritual.

Pilgrims then return to Mecca and make a Tawaf. Then it's back to Mina for three or four days, stoning the pillars each day.

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Muslims in Mecca during the farewell circumambulation.

Finally devotees do a farewell Tawaf in the Great Mosque at Mecca on the 12th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijja, ask God's forgiveness for past errors, and offer prayers. The Hajj is finished.

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4. One God

Today, Hajj is probably the most well-known mass pilgrimage in the world. The idea of a yearly visit to the Kaaba was born in 628 AD.

According to Islamic tradition, the Kaaba was built in honour of God by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ismael. But centuries later, the local populations who adored many gods used the cubic structure to store idols.

Fast-forward to the 7th Century, when Muslims believe God told the Prophet Muhammad that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of one God only.

In the year 628 he set out on a journey with 1400 of his followers. This was the first pilgrimage in Islam.

Since then, the Kaaba has been through many transformations, but the experience of walking around it for devoted Muslims is just as meaningful as it would have been back then. It is a once in a lifetime event that has a powerful spiritual and emotional impact on pilgrims.

5. My pilgrimage to Mecca

Imam Abdullah Hasan describes the first time he saw the Kaaba.

6. What happens on other pilgrimages?

Often pilgrimages express a manifestation of faith, self-sacrifice and a coming together of the faithful. But what rites and rituals do other pilgrims perform?

Buddhists

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Every three steps

On the way to Lhasa, in Tibet, Buddhist pilgrims prostrate themselves every three steps as an act of worship.

Shinto devotees

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Heavy load

Shinto pilgrims carry a portable shrine during the Three Shrine Festival held in Tokyo, Japan.

Zoroastrians

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Five-day pilgrimage

Zoroastrians make an annual pilgrimage to an ancient temple built into a remote Iranian mountain outside Yazd.