CAIRO - Riddled for years with hardships, the life-time spiritual journey of hajj has been greatly facilitated by services provided by Saudi authorities to millions of Muslim pilgrims to realize their cherished dream of visiting the holy lands.
"Thankfully it is far more organized now and safer for everyone," Rashid Ahmed, an Emirati from Sharjah, told The National newspaper on Tuesday, October 9.Years ago, the first pilgrims used to travel to the holy lands on foot, crossing the merciless desert in camel caravans and on donkeys.
With the onset of modern transport, the pilgrims began arriving on buses, and on ships from far-flung parts of the Muslim world.
Ahmed recalls his first hajj with his 60-year-old mother in 1981, when he was just 21, which was totally "incomparable."
Booking their flight on a Middle East airline, they were prepared for the worse.
"It was understood that there was a very high chance that you might get crushed to death in a stampede or get killed on the road in a bus or car accident," Ahmed said.
"Even though I felt I should perform Hajj when I was older, I did it for my mother. It was her dream."
It had cost him Dh4,000 for the total trip, Dh2,000 each, for the first-class package at the time,.
Ahmed also performed hajj I 2009, which was very easy for him.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
With Saudi authorities expanding the holy city of Makkah to meet the growing numbers of pilgrims, the life-time journey of hajj was getting safer.
"It was a far more dangerous hajj in the past," Ahmed said.
"Women avoided going to certain sites, like the Jamarat and the slaughter site, the Emirati pilgrim added.
Over the past few years, the Saudi government has championed several projects to develop and expand Makkah to help accommodate for the growing number of visitors.
During past two hajj seasons, pilgrims were able to use the first stage of the first monorail in Makkah, dubbed as the Holy Rituals Train that links Makkah with the holy sites of Mina, `Arafah and Muzdalifah, all visited by massive tides of pilgrims.
The Makkah Clock Tower, the world's largest clock tower, with four glimmering 46 meter-across (151 feet) faces of high-tech composite tiles, some laced with gold, also started ticking last year.
Other projects were also initiated by Saudi authorities lately, to assure pilgrims' security and safety.
In November 2009, Riyadh declared it has completed a five-storey hi-tech Jamarat Bridge to ensure a smooth flow of millions of pilgrims during the pelting ritual of the annual hajj.
The bridge has 10 entrances and 12 exits over its four levels to allow the flow of 300,000 pilgrims per hour.
It is also equipped with technology to help authorities intervene in case of any deadly stampedes during the stoning ritual.Other projects were also performed to expand the area on top of the holy Mount Arafat, develop the sewage and fire-fighting systems and upgrade health and transportation service.