Quick! What the Hell is Hajj?

Virtually all major religions have holy lands — places they consider to be especially important to their faith — and visiting those places often is deemed to be a crucial show of devotion. For Christians and Jews, that place is Jerusalem; for Hindus, it's the Himalayas; and for Muslims, it's Mecca in Saudi Arabia These religious travels are called pilgrimages, and for Muslims, the pilgrimage (or Hajj) is not just recommended but required of all able-bodied Muslims. Every year, millions of Muslims from throughout the world visit Mecca during Hajj to pray to Allah, ask for forgiveness for they're wrongs, meet and commune with those who share their faith, and recommit themselves to Islam. This year's Hajj (pronounced "Hodge") began yesterday and ends on Monday.

When it's over, they'll celebrate Eid al-Adha. You'll see my rundown on that holiday below.

Hajj is such an interesting pilgrimage because it's so f'ing huge, first of all, and also because there are so many specific things the pilgrims must do to complete it correctly. Firstly, there are rules about what can be worn (white, seamless clothing) and not worn (perfume, deodorant), what must not be done (flirting is a huge no-no) and what rituals must be performed. Arguably, the most important of the rituals is circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. The Kabaa is the black, cubed-shaped building in the center of Mecca. It is the most holy site in Islam, and when Muslims pray — no matter where they are in the world — they turn their prayer rugs to face that building. I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must be for people who have been praying toward the cube all their lives to finally see it up close. (You'll notice in the picture above the swirl of people around the building. A very cool image, I thought.

Other interesting things about the Kabaa:

• The ancient, brick-and-mortar building is shrouded in a black curtain.

• Inside, it is held up by pillars.

• According to Muhammad, it was built by Abraham himself, with the help of Abraham's son, some 2,000 years ago.

• On one side is the famous "Black Stone," now set in gold. Muhammad was said to have kissed this stone, which is why people touch or kiss it as they pass.

Anyway, the other rituals of Hajj are: walking back and forth between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (which is now enclosed in a long hallway) seven times, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and visiting  Mount Arafat  (where Muhammad gave his final speech after performing Hajj himself on March 9 in the year 632.)

Now that you know what Hajj is, check out these fantastic pictures of this year's event. I really would love to visit Mecca someday — but probably will never have the chance. For years, the city has been closed to non-Muslims, and something tells me the Arabs aren't going to make an exception for me.

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