Mecca: A place of awe and wonder
(CNN) -- Zain Verjee is anchoring CNN's coverage of the Hajj pilgrimage. She is also writing for CNN.com about her experiences. Here she describes how Mecca, a city that each year plays host to millions of pilgrims, stirs the emotions of those who visit, live and work there.
Mecca -- the name conjures up a myriad of visions. In reality it is a place of awe and wonder and a city of contradictions.
On one hand it truly represents the holiest of Muslim shrines, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed and the location of the Kaba, believed to be the first house of prayer to God and to which more than two million pilgrims visit annually for the Hajj.
It is also a city crowded with cars and buses that hoot their horns at pedestrians and where men on scooters dangerously weave their way through traffic. It is a place of commerce, with women sitting on the roadside selling holy beads and prayer rugs, and fresh fruit stalls and barber shops on almost every corner.
Wander the streets of Mecca and you will see flags from nations across the globe hanging from the sides of buildings, while the crowds speak languages and follow cultures too numerous to count, underscoring the huge distances traveled by the pilgrims.
None more so than the man on crutches inching his way slowly through the streets of Mecca as night begins to fall. His determination and his patience are striking; he is just one of the many infirm and old who are determined to make their first or last journey to the Hajj.
For some the Hajj is an event to be experienced with the family. For many others, it is as part of a large group of people from the same country of origin.
Some are easily identifiable because of their distinct attire, such as the Indonesians, Malaysians, Palestinians, Iranians and Nigerians. I met three Southeast Asian women who were all wearing bright yellow hats just in case they were lost or separated from each other in the crowd.
With the crowds so large, the risk of getting lost and separated from one another is very real, so each pilgrim is given an identity card that contains their name, country of origin, hotel name and other contact numbers.
The diversity is enormous. Muslims from all over the world are in one place at one time. One Sudanese woman I spoke to said that one of the most moving moments for her was seeing everyone praying together in the same way, at the same time and to the same God.
Prayer time in Mecca is awe-inspiring. The loud, bustling city suddenly becomes silent. The calls to prayer echo melodically and periodically across the city. Pilgrims turn toward the Kaba in unison to pray together, whether they are in the mosque, outside the mosque or on the street. Even the shopkeepers leave their stores to pray, leaving their wares unobserved and unprotected.
Most Muslims have only seen the Kaba in a photograph or in a video. Seeing the black, cube-like structure for the first time is extremely emotional: "Overwhelming." "Unbelievable." They tell me this with tears streaming down their face.
It is common to see grown men shed tears of humility and exhilaration. Many pilgrims have saved their entire life to be here and experience this spiritual rejuvenation. As I talk to pilgrims in Mecca about what Islam is today, their consistent message to me is this: Islam is a religion of peace.