The holy city of Mecca looked deceptively calm as the first dawn of the new century started to break behind craggy mountains.
Splashing his face with cold water, the Grand Mosques bearded imam fastened a beige-hued cloak over his shoulders and muttered praises to the Lord. The time to lead the mornings first prayer was minutes away.
Under his window, the mosques floodlit courtyard was filling up quickly. The hajj pilgrimage season, when this stadium-size enclosure was traversed by more than a million worshippers, had already ended. Yet Mecca remained jam-packed with the faithful. Many of them had spent the night inside Islams holiest shrine, curling up on wool carpets in the Grand Mosques multistory labyrinth of nearly a thousand rooms.
As usual, these worshippers camped along with their bundles, mattresses, and suitcases that nobody had bothered to check. Following custom, many hauled in wooden coffins, hoping that the imam would bestow on decomposing relatives inside the precious blessings that can only be received in such a sacred precinct.
Today, some of these coffins contained an unusual cargo: Kalashnikov assault rifles, Belgian-made FN-FAL guns, bullet belts, and an assortment of pistols.
The men who had smuggled this arsenal into the mosque sought an ambitious goal: to reverse the flow of world history, sparking a global war that would finally lead to Islams total victory and to a destruction of arrogant Christians and Jews.
The date was the First of Muharram of Islams year 1400which in calendars kept by infidel Westerners corresponded to November 20, 1979.
For the natives of Mecca, a city that lives off the flood of humanity that has coursed through its shrines since time immemorial, this Tuesday morning promised a particularly joyful occasion: New Years day is when, according to tradition, the Meccans make a pilgrimage of their own to the Grand Mosque.
In darkness, thousands trekked to the outskirts of the city, shedding everyday clothes after a shower and returning in the pilgrims snow white ihram outfitstwo towel-like garments that symbolize purity and leave mens right shoulders exposed.
Mixing in with the locals were as many as 100,000 visitors from all over the worldPakistanis and Indonesians, Moroccans and Yemenis, Nigerians and Turks. Some were stragglers left behind after the hajj, entrepreneurial pilgrims who, year after year, try to offset the cost of their passage by reselling in Meccas bazaars exotic wares from their remote homelands. Others had arrived in Mecca just to witness the turn of the centurya once-in-a-lifetime event.
Hidden in this human sea were hundreds of grim-faced rebels, many of them sporting red checkered headdresses. Some had been inside the mosque for days, reconnoitering its maze of corridors and passageways. Others were bused in during the night by a friendly religious academy. Yet others drove their own cars to Mecca this morning, arriving at the last minute and accompanied by children and wives to allay guards suspicions.
Most of these conspirators were Saudis of Bedouin stock, though their ranks also brimmed with foreigners, if such a word had a meaning for men who believed in the single citizenship of Islam. They even included African American converts, inspired by a new faith and hardened by race riots half a world away.
The color of the cloudless sky just started to turn from grayish to pink when the dawn ritual began, as it does that time of the year, at 5:18 a.m. La ilaha ila Allah, the deep-voiced prayer call rang from new loudspeakers affixed atop the mosques seven towering minarets: There is no god but Allah.
Barefoot, worshippers knelt in the Grand Mosques marble-paved courtyard. Clearing his throat, the imam picked up the microphone and read out the blessings. On his cue, the faithful prostrated themselves on the ground, in a vast succession of concentric circles that radiated from the Kaaba, an ancient cube draped in black silk embroidered with gold that looms in the center of the enclosure.
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