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Mon 11 December 2017

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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 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by road, sea and air every year, completing a journey now much shorter and in some ways less arduous than it often was in the past.

As the religion of Islam rapidly spread across the world from Indonesia and China in the far east to Spain, Morocco and West Africa in the west, pilgrims from countries like Indonesia or Morocco could entail round-trip journeys of 10,000 miles. Hajj often was a dangerous undertaking, involving arduous travel over great distances and rough terrain, at the mercy of storms, robbers and political unrest.
Some came by boat, braving the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Others spent months in camel caravans slowly crossing great tracts of land. Actually, until the 19th century, pilgrims traveling the long distance to Makkah were usually part of a caravan. The most important pilgrimage caravans were the Egyptian which formed in Cairo, the Syrian which after 1453 started at Istanbul, gathering pilgrims along the way, and proceeded from Damascus to Makkah, the Maghribi (the trans-Saharan route), the Sudanese (the sub-Saharan, savanna route), the Persian one, and the one from Iraq which set out from Baghdad.

Regarding the route from Sudan, the first pilgrims arrived in Mecca already in the twelfth century and their number grew in the course of time. The usual route was to travel through Tunis, Tripoli, or Cairo, which were not only remarkable centres of Islamic learning but also meeting points of Western and Islamic civilizations with permanent European settlements. Moreover, many of the African pilgrims extended their travels to the important cities of the Middle East: Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad and occasionnally even to Constantinople.

As the hajj journey took months if all went well, pilgrims carried with them the provisions they needed to sustain them on their trip. The caravans were elaborately supplied with amenities and security if the persons traveling were rich, but the poor often ran out of provisions and had to interrupt their journey in order to work, save up their earnings, and then go on their way. This resulted in long journeys which, in some cases, spanned ten years or more. Travel in earlier days was filled with adventure. The roads were often unsafe due to bandit raids. The terrain the pilgrims passed through was also dangerous, and natural hazards and diseases often claimed many lives along the way. According to an historian:

"Some pilgrims invariably (bound to happen; without varying from the usual pattern) perished (died) along the way... from exposure [to the sun], thirst, flash flood, epidemic (sickness), or even attack by local nomads, who seldom hesitated to disrupt the Sacred Journey for what it might bring them in plunder (money and goods taken by robbers). In 1361, 100 Syrian pilgrims died of extreme winter cold; in 1430, 3000 Egyptians perished of heat and thirst."
(Source: Dunn, p. 67: Adventures of Ibn Battuta).
Thus, the successful return of pilgrims to their families was the occasion of joyous celebration and thanksgiving for their safe arrival.



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