As pilgrims leave Medina, the first act of the Hajj is to enter the “Ihram,” a state of being, before entering Mecca. Men drape themselves in two white sheets, and women wear any loose-fitting clothing. The sheets are symbolic of the physical and spiritual purity of the state of ihram. Upon arriving in Mecca at The Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), pilgrims usually complete the tawaf, or walk seven times around the Kaaba while praying. As with any mosque, shoes are not permitted inside the Mosque.
The annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia—has occurred annually dating back to the beginning of Islam. About 2-3 million people travel to Mecca from all over the world for just over a week to perform a religious obligation. Pictured here is the Masjid al-Haram, The Grand Mosque, which to Muslims is the holiest place on Earth. The Mosque is built around the Kaaba, the black structure in the middle of the photograph. One of the primary rituals associated with the Mosque is the practice of tawaf, walking around the Kaaba seven times. Islam is not religion practiced in isolation. Muslims pray, fast, and celebrate together. This collection tells the story of how millions of Muslims congregate for one of the world’s largest gatherings, the Hajj.
A group of ethnic Chinese Muslims from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Uighurs have been prosecuted by Han (majority) Chinese, and some provincial Chinese governments have banned Muslims from practicing their religion, including fasting during the month of Ramadan.
A group of women from India peer through the walls and fence of the Jannat al-Baki’, a famous cemetery located adjacent to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Women are not allowed to enter the cemetery. The segregation of sexes is starkly evident as women are separated from men in many aspects of the Hajj.
Worshippers jostle for position to get as close as possible to the walls of the Kaaba, in the hopes of touching and kissing a black stone embedded in the walls and believed to be a relic. Touching the stone is considered a standard part of completing the tawaf, but the closer pilgrims get to the Kaaba, the greater the risk of injury due to the intense, surging mass. The black shroud covering the Kaaba is raised to prevent damage.
A boy flashes an impish grin at the camera as an older couple faces the Kaaba in prayer.
Pilgrims reach for the gold doors at the entrance to the Kaaba, in the hopes of gaining extra blessings. The keys to these doors are held by members of a single tribe in Saudi Arabia, and access to the Kaaba’s interior is restricted to a handful of dignitaries.
A view from above of the main floor of the Masjid al-Haram, as pilgrims turn in unison towards the Kaaba.
A South Asian worker waits patiently for an opportunity to work his way through the crowd. Without the low-cost labor provided by the thousands of migrant workers like this one, the Hajj would be impossible to operationalize. Workers often send much of their earnings home as remittance to poor family members. In 2011, thousands of workers protested their living conditions and lack of timely pay. Organizations like Amnesty International have recently brought to attention the plight of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.
This man had traveled from Afghanistan for the Hajj. His clothing and turban are stereotypical of Afghani garb, while his fair skin and piercing, blue eyes are reminiscent of how Christ is often portrayed in Western imagery.
The blinding sun casts strong shadows as the faithful stand in prayer at Arafat, a dusty plain east of Mecca. Here, pilgrims are meant to stand in prayer until sunset, as though they are standing before God.
A delegation from Bangladesh stands together, hands raised in prayer at an area near Mecca called Arafat. Praying at Arafat leads to forgiveness of a Muslim’s sins.
After sunset, pilgrims leave Arafat and head to Muzdalifah, an open area half way between Arafat and Mecca. Here, pilgrims are supposed to collect pebbles for the next day’s symbolic stoning of the devil, and sleep in an open space without a roof over their heads. This is meant to be a peaceful night under the stars, but with millions of people in a small space and glare from bright yellow sodium street lights, few stars can be seen, and sleep is incomplete.
One of the last rites of the Hajj, where pilgrims pelt three large walls with pebbles collected at Muzdalifah. This ritual re-enacts Abraham’s stoning of the devil. Spiritually, it presents a means to cast away desires and wishes to get closer to God. The area where this ritual occurs has been the location of numerous stampedes. In 2015, thousands of pilgrims were killed as they converged on the site.
At the end of the Hajj, on the day of Eid al Adha, men shave their heads as way of showing humility and lack of pride in worldly possessions.
Bangladeshi workers staff a popular shawarma stand across the street from the Mosque.
Women from Niger stand in a group near the entrance to Jannat al-Baki’.
A woman raises her arms in prayer and frames the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.
With space scarce within the walls of the Mosque during the Hajj, many line up in the middle of streets, drop prayer rugs, and form lines for prayer.
The shadow of a pilgrim standing in prayer is cast beside him.
In spite of the crowds, the stress, the fatigue, the garbage, the Hajj draws together Muslims from around the world. Cultural diversity is expressed in clothing and color, but at least for a few days, millions of people eat and pray and walk and sleep together, as one congregation.