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ONLINE DOCUMENT: SAUDIS MAKE THE TRIP TO MECCA MORE COMFORTABLE

The pilgrimage to Mecca, an obligatory, once-in-a-lifetime trip required of all Muslims, isn't quite so toilsome these days.

Travelers at last month's five-day Eid ul-Adha pilgrimage enjoyed the fruits of a 10-year, $18.6 billion renovation project unveiled in March by the Saudi Arabian government."A lot of the changes are subtle, like more washrooms or more shade in the afternoons," said Ibrahim Hooper, who visited Mecca in January. "But every little bit of comfort helps."

This year, cool water circulated beneath marble paving stones as about 2 million worshipers circled the Kaabah, a cube-shaped structure believed set up by Abraham. The world's largest air-conditioning project kept the Holy Mosque cool, and two monster escalators carried 15,000 people per hour to an upper-level worship space. State-of-the-art public address systems coordinated the prayers and movement of the masses.

The holy city is at the heart of Saudi Arabia, a desert nation that has played host to Islamic pilgrims since the religion took root there. Modern transportation has increased hajj traffic dramatically, sometimes with tragic results. Hundreds of pilgrims were trampled in stampedes and crowd surges as recently as 1994.

Consider the logistics: millions of people descend upon the small desert city for only five days each year, all of them with a single goal in mind. Handling the crush while preserving sanctity and safety at a historic shrine is a centuries-old challenge at holy sites all over the world. But most shrines don't sit atop one of the world's richest oil reserves.

Some Muslims recall earlier days, when the trip was an ordeal.

In 1973, Imam Abdul Khattab, head of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Ohio, joined a million fellow Muslims on his pilgrimage. The desert shrine had no public sewerage system, and no fresh water supply to speak of.

"Conditions were pretty primitive," he says today.

But it wasn't heat, crowds, thirst or smells that overwhelmed Imam Khattab. It was the history of the place, knowing that Abraham, Ishmael and Muhammad walked there, followed by 1,400 years' worth of Muslim pilgrims.

Like more than 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's visitors, Imam Khattab arrived by air. Since then, a new, hajj-only terminal has been added to the Jeddah airport. Tunnels and superhighways carry pilgrim buses to huge tent cities or apartment towers inside the town.

No one is a casual visitor. Each pilgrim arrives as part of a group, which must be registered with a mutawaf, a government-approved guide who cares for their food, water, shelter and medical needs throughout their visit. Saudi security officers use radios and video cameras to keep tight control of thousands of visitors.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications chief for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, made the hajj in 1983, and visited Mecca again in January. During his pilgrimage, he slept on a foam-rubber mat on the floor of a school gymnasium. Most of the town's offices, schools and public facilities shut down during the 5-day pilgrim blitz and offer all spare space to visitors, he said. Depending on his means, a pilgrim may sleep in a boarding house, tent, office hallway, luxury hotel or outdoors, under the stars.

"It's really, really hot, all year round. We're talking desert heat," Hooper said. "The pilgrimage is strenuous physically, no matter how much high technology you add. You're bare-footed. You're moving around with more than a million people bumping up against you. Sometimes your feet aren't even touching the ground, it's so crowded."

"But everything falls away from you while you're there," Imam Khattab said. "You forget anything that worries you, and feel the weight of all the history. And everyone dresses identically, so you see the equality of all people before God: Rich people, poor, women and men, kings and janitors, black and white, all in the same uniform, all together as brothers. It is unforgettable."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)