National Geographic : 1953 Jul
From America to Mecca on Airborne Pilgrimage lems, the world over, turn their hearts: the Kaaba-black-draped, severely square, im mense. Unforced, the words of the Talbiya came to my lips: "Here am I, 0 God, at Thy command! No equal hast Thou; here am I." A breeze filtering down from the barren hills moved the skirt of the Kaaba's cover ing and let it billow and ripple in gentle folds. I felt a deep sense of humility. Part was that humility natural to any Moslem standing be fore the Presence: in the belief of Islam, Abraham built the Kaaba at the command of God. But part sprang from another source- the knowledge of my mission in this place. For I had set myself a task with few prece dents in the long history of Islam: to take in color, if I could, a full pictorial record of my religion's sacred rites. Permission from a High Official My purpose was simple and clear-to bring the West a richer knowledge of Islam, its high festivals and their meaning. To more than 370 million Moslems, the hadj, or pilgrim age, has a central, living significance. Surely, I thought, if I can convey to the outer world in words and photographs some measure of that great pageant's importance to men of my faith, I shall have advanced, by at least a little, man's understanding of man. I had been careful, of course, to obtain the permission of a high Meccan official. Until fairly recent times such permission would have been almost impossible to obtain, and zealots among the faithful who flock to the sanctuary might have attacked me. Why would zealots have considered my photography impious? First, because Mo hammed banned all representation of the hu man form-sculpture, painting, murals-so + The Kaaba: "Navel Photographed in by a Devout of the World" Full Color Moslem Moslems believe that Abraham built this cube of basalt blocks at the command of God. The curtain's gold embroidery cites verses from the Koran in Arabic. To pay homage at this holy of holies forms one of the five basic obligations of Islam. The other four: to observe the fast of Ramadan; to recite the belief that "There is no god but God, and Moham med is His Prophet"; to pray five times a day; to give to the poor one-fortieth of one's wealth. Moslems confronting the Kaaba weep, wail, and prostrate themselves; they kiss its mantle and drench it in costly perfumes; or merely stand in awestruck contemplation. On rare occasions, when rain pours from the Kaaba's gilt Waterspout of Mercy, pilgrims vie for each drop of the heaven-charged moisture. No planes are permitted to pass over the Kaaba. Even the doves (so the devout report) fly around but never above it. (See also pages 26-33.) © National Geographic Society Kodachrome by Abdul Ghafur Sheikh the Arab would not return to the worship of images as idols. Second, because to bring a camera into a shrine of Islam would, in their eyes, defile the holy place.* From beneath my ihram-the two seamless sheets which make up the pilgrim's garb-I drew my light meter. As I had surmised, the day was yet too young, contrast in color still too faint. Later in the day, when the sun was higher, I could return and commence the thor ough photographic coverage of the mosque which I desired. Now, however, I must resume my role of pilgrim. I stepped out into the courtyard to begin my own tawaf-the sevenfold circuit of the Kaaba which each hadji must perform on at least three occasions: when he first reaches Mecca, when he returns from the Stoning at Mina, and when he says farewell to the city on his last day (page 28). Three laps of the tawaf must be accom plished at a trot, the other four walking. I knew not the special prayers which the guides recite for their followers, but I offered those phrases which welled most naturally to my tongue. The circumambulation, an old custom, is a means of turning the thoughts of pilgrims upon the soul's own seeking after the Lord. For such a journey, I thought, no paid guide was truly necessary.t By this time, however, many thousands of eager, early-rising pilgrims had entered the square and with ecstatic indifference to those around them were jogging past the shrine, some chanting, some weeping, some struck dumb in contemplation of this, the "navel of the world." Caught up in this throng, crushed shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl, I was soon no longer capable of independent motion but surged forward like a chip on a racing tide. * Editor's Note Some years ago pilgrims would have thought it sacrilegious to photograph the Kaaba and other sacred shrines. Indeed, zealots might have attacked anyone displaying a camera. But today comparatively few Moslems believe a photograph breaks Mohammed s ban; even to go abroad on a hadj they must have a passport photograph. With increasing frequency, approved Moslems are permitted to record the hadj on film. In fact, the great pilgrimage is lavishly illustrated in Arabic language newspapers, and souvenir photographs are available in shops near the gates of Mecca's Great Mosque. Nevertheless, scenes such as the ones which accom pany this article are still rare in Western publications. This reverent and fully illustrated record of the great pilgrimage to Mecca was made possible when one of the progressive officials of the Saudi Arabian Government granted Abdul Ghafur Sheikh permission to make the photographs. t See "Pilgrim's Progress to Mecca," 22 illustrations in duotone, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Novem ber, 1937.