"I imagine it to be an ocean of people but still somehow a lonely place," said Hasan Badday just hours before he and other Muslim pilgrims from Southern California boarded buses for a vigil Tuesday on Mt. Arafat in the Saudi desert.
There, after weeks of preparation, prayer and buildup, almost 3 million Muslims would officially begin the grand pilgrimage known as the hajj. Badday's comments would prove accurate, capturing the experiences of pilgrims performing a series of rituals, many modeled on the life of the Prophet Abraham.
"Everything is building to this moment. I don't know what to expect and I'm very nervous," said Badday, 30, a recent medical school graduate from Claremont.
"I don't think I'm even going to notice anyone around me."
For many pilgrims, it's hard to not be aware of the constant crush of worshipers. The group of Southern Californians, led by Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, first encountered huge crowds Dec. 10 shortly after arriving in Mecca before dawn. In accordance with tradition, they headed almost immediately for Mecca's Grand Mosque.
"Labbaik. Allah humma labbaik," they said upon entering the complex. "Here I am, Lord. I am here to serve you."
Qazwini, head of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, says there are two emotional high points for first-time pilgrims. The first is when they put on the simple white ihram robes, which formally denote them as pilgrims. "The second moment," he said, "is when they actually see the Kaaba for the first time."
Muslim tradition holds that the Kaaba, a single-room structure with a marble floor, was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael as one of the first houses of monotheistic worship. Pagan tribes took over the Kaaba for a time, but the Prophet Muhammad wrested control of the structure from the tribes in 630. When Muslims pray -- five times a day -- they face the Kaaba.
All prospective pilgrims in Mecca must complete umrah -- a several-hour series of rituals that start with seven revolutions, or tawaaf, around the Kaaba. Umrah can be performed at any time of the year, or in conjunction with the hajj. Even at 4 a.m., when Qazwini's group arrived, a teeming white mass lurched counterclockwise around the four-story black cube that is the holiest site in Islam.
From a distance, the steady circular flow almost looks peaceful. It's not.
Many of the Southern California pilgrims later described their first tawaaf experience as difficult, claustrophobic, sweaty and a little scary. For some, it was too distracting to squeeze in much of a spiritual experience.
"It was tough. It was really tough," said Hakim Jennane, a Moroccan-born business analyst from Long Beach. "We were exhausted. It was a blur."
It's impossible to overstate the physical and emotional intensity inside the masses circling the Kaaba. Pilgrims emerge glassy-eyed and soaked in sweat. The moist heat is intense enough to steam up one's glasses.
Grown men weep openly as they near the Kaaba. One man held his hands in front of his face and repeatedly chanted, "We're your guests, O Lord."
Some worshipers, overcome with emotion, launch themselves at the walls of the Kaaba, looking as though they're trying to hug the building. Some try to kiss the Black Stone, which is mounted in gold and set in the building's eastern corner. Muslims believe the stone was brought from Paradise by the Archangel Gabriel. Worshipers far from the stone point to it as they pass.
Pilgrim groups move together in line -- desperately keeping their hands on the shoulders of the person in front for fear of being separated. Husbands walk behind their wives, arms around them in a protective, moving bear hug.
"Pushing and squeezing is part of the joy," Qazwini said. "Yes, it is not comfortable -- especially if you come from America, where there's not a lot of crowds and pushing."
Ellen and Raef Hajjali of Altadena performed their tawaaf as part of an 11-person chain, each tightly gripping the shoulders of the person in front.