Arafat – at night
So this is it. The Plains of Arafat.
It’s an eerie place at night. Has kind of a military camp kind of feel. Emergency vehicles driving around, armed troops guarding VIP quarters, and the occasional helicopter flying overhead. Safety and health, it seems, are the Saudi authorities’ biggest concerns.
Over the past several years, I’ve been to some pretty wild places.
I’ve sailed down the Ganges, meditated at the birthplace of Buddhism, even been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But in all these great places, there’s only one place I’ve seen “The Look.”
It's really quite the scene now.
Thousands of buses crammed with pilgrims are making their way towards Mina as the Hajj begins. So far, things seem fairly efficient. There are naturally delays in moving so many people around, but overall, the increase in traffic controllers on the ground seems to be working.
Mecca is, and always has been, a city of traders and merchants. It was like this even long before the advent of Islam, when traders from three continents would stop in Mecca to barter goods, set exchange rates, etc.
It's no surprise then that commerce remains a big part of the annual Hajj. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the brand new, state of the art Abraj al Bait shopping complex. Visitors can now enjoy multiple food courts, high-end fashion and jewellery stores, and even grab a Starbucks - literally just steps away from the Great Mosque.
One of the biggest dangers with a gathering this large is the spread of disease.
Think about it. You have people coming from every part of the world, carrying who knows what germs, bacteria, and viruses with them. In the case of a serious strain of influenza (think H1N1 or Avian flu), any kind of outbreak could be deadly.
Germs and viruses can spread very easily here. To complicate matters, many parts of the world don't have high levels of health education. In some countries, it's common to sneeze or blow your nose right onto the ground. In Mecca, where people are generally barefoot in holy sites, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
Have some more time to upload photos while I'm at my laptop working on the print articles. The first story will look at how Canadian engineers are helping to transform the Hajj experience, and the second will look at how technology is making the annual pilgrimage into something like a Hajj 2.0. Saudi authorities are fully embracing new modes of communication and technology, to bring the ancient ritual into the 21st century.
In the meantime, here are more pics. Please note that there's a strict "no cameras allowed" policy inside the Great Mosque. They usually allow in only one pool photographer, from AP or Reuters. Most of these pics were taken from outside during the late morning.
Had time to wander around this morning and shoot some photos. The lighting here is very tricky. Lots of contrast: Either you're in the shade, or the blinding sun. Makes balanced photos a bit tricky.
This is the first photo. More to follow.
Join the CBC's Muhammad Lila as he chronicles the trip of a lifetime during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. As a journalist, he'll be asking tough questions, posting daily updates, and talking to the Canadians at the heart of Mecca's transformation.