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THE completion

Now the Hajj changes shape again, turning from a demanding set of time-specific rites--when one must arrive and depart on time for the next rendezvous or station--to three days of more restful, stationary celebration.

Days Four, Five, and Six - The return to Mina also marks the commencement of a three-day feast, the Eid ul-Adha. The celebration is observed throughout the world, but nowhere with greater energy than in Mecca.

The days spent in the Mina Valley desert, where we leave behind our private lives, our usual comforts, our concrete walls and ceilings, air-conditioning and heating, one's own bath and toilet; where we trade all this for a canvas tent and a campfire, for life in a great camp--all this serves to slow down your life's pace and return you to a sense of REAL TIME.

This simplicity clears the mind, leaving the pilgrim ready to savor the basic gifts of life: a cup of water, a cooling breeze, and a helpful direction from a stranger. In this sense, the Hajj is a direct invitation to give thanks for life on a primary level. We came here to live for a few days in a community of several million people, all determined to get back to basics. And we have done it. True to the ever-present chant that echoes in the background, "We are here."

Days Four, Five, and Six - At this point, pilgrims, when they wish, return to Mecca for a farewell repetition of the same rites they performed on their arrival. In keeping with a process of desacralization, many male pilgrims have their heads shaved now, while some males and all women clip a lock of hair. It is a symbolic way of saying, "I have changed, and I am renewed." The special garments of the Hajj are changed now too for normal clothes, and the Hajj turns into an enormous feast of celebration.

It is generally recommended that pilgrims leave Mecca and return to their homelands shortly after completing the rites of the Hajj. The idea is that you should not grow used to the city. Rather, it should remain unique, a special place in the memory, untouched by too much familiarity. And so it happens. Once the feast is over, hour-by-hour tens of thousands of pilgrims disappear, the streets grow noticeably less crowded, and the mosque is no longer a shoulder-to-shoulder affair. Already, battalions of pilgrimage workers are striking the thousands of tents in Mina Valley. The jumbo jets are circling the airport, spinning their cargo back home along the four points of the compass.

A month from now, one quiet dawn on the Plain of Arafat, a boy in a robe and a wooden staff will drive a herd of sheep along the sand and there will be no one there to see him. A bit of tumbleweed may cross a road. The plain will seem to hold its breath, until next year.