From New World Encyclopedia

A supplicating pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram, the mosque that was built around the Kaaba (the cubical building at center). Thousands of pilgrims walk around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction.

The hajj (Arabic: حج, transliterated Ḥaǧǧ; "greater pilgrimage")[1] is the Islamic rite of pilgrimage in Mecca, the city in Saudi Arabia containing the religion's holiest site, the Masjid al-Haram. The hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, an obligation that must be met at least once by every able-bodied Muslim, with exceptions made for those who are prevented by financial or medical concerns.[2] It is the most overt demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to God.[3] The festival itself occurs from the eighth to the twelfth day of Dhul Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. This date cannot be aligned directly with Western calendars, but in the early twenty-first century, it occurs roughly in the November–January timeframe. While pilgrims are permitted to visit Mecca and perform the appropriate rituals at other times of the year (a practice known as the "lesser pilgrimage" or Umrah), this does not release them from their holy obligation to perform the hajj at some other point in their lifetime.

The hajj is an ancient ritual that many of the faithful believe dates back to the time of Abraham in 2000 B.C.E. Since time immemorial, those participating join processions of tens of thousands of people who simultaneously converge on Mecca for the high holy week of the hajj, a total immersion experience that includes performing the following series of rituals (or modern variations of them). Each person: walks counter-clockwise seven times about the Kaaba; kisses the Black Stone of Mecca; runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah; drinks from the Zamzam Well; goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil; proceeds to Muzdalifah to gather pebbles, which are later thrown at a rock in Mina (symbolically Stoning the Devil); shaves one's head (or trims one's hair); performs an animal sacrifice; and, finally, celebrates one's successful pilgrimage at the three-day festival of Eid ul-Adha.[4] [5] This particular set of ritualized practices symbolically commemorates certain formative elements in the history of Islam, from the travels of Abraham to the last sermon delivered by Muhammad.[6]

The ritual framework of the hajj in its entirety acts to elicit a sense of sacred time among its participants. On the hajj, Muslims take part in a rite of passage of truly epic proportions. They discard their workday concerns, clothe themselves in the ihram (simple white robes), and begin their respective sacred journeys. During the procession, they each reenact central events from the lives of Abraham and Muhammad, which simultaneously act as a memorial to the hallowed prophets and recast those episodes as pertinent elements in each participant’s life story. As a result, the hajj is a vital element in the formation of a Muslim's identity, as it allows the adherent personalized access to the Holy, while also stressing joint participation in a worldwide network of believers. The entire pilgrimage experience appears as a rite of passage designed to transform the attitudes and world views of those who perform it:

Few Muslims are unchanged by their experience of the Hajj: on their return to their homes and their normal lives, the religious element of life remains in the foreground, more real than the visible realities of normal life. Forever after, a photograph of the Kabaa reminds the former pilgrim of the intensity of the experience of Hajj, rather as a photograph of a small child warms the heart of its grandparent.[7]

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History and Context

Terminology and Etymology

Gerald Hawting, in the Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, notes that it is simply inadequate to translate hajj as "pilgrimage," given the functional and experiential nuances particular to the two. Specifically, "pilgrimage" invokes the concept of traveling to a sacred place (with emphasis on the travel), while "hajj" refers most specifically to the complex of ritual activities that the participants are expected to perform after their arrival in Mecca. Indeed, it is noted that the root h-j(-j), from which the term "hajj" is derived, seems to denote "procession, round, dance, or festival"—all of which imply the circumambulation ritual (tawaf) that bookends the pilgrim's experience.[8]

Historical Sketch

The hajj was already an ancient ritual in the time of Muhammad (seventh century C.E.). Indeed, the surviving descriptions of the prophet's life describe him regularly performing both the hajj and umrah, even before he began receiving revelations—a testament that is supported by surviving archaeological evidence, which suggests that many of the pilgrimage's hallmark practices were already prevalent in the region's popular religion, including the vigil at Mount Arafat and the "Stoning of the Devil."[9][4] Regardless, it was only with the prophet's monotheistic reforms that the ritual system began to assume its modern form and significance:

According to Islamic tradition, the Abrahamic origins of hajj sites and rituals had been taught by the prophet Muhammad to the nascent Islamic community during the pilgrimage he performed just before the end of his life (632 C.E.). The sermon he delivered on the Mount of Mercy, at Arafat, and his removal of all pagan idols from the Ka'bah in Mecca are recollected annually during the hajj ceremonies. The imputed Abrahamic origins of the hajj ceremonies contribute a deeper, complimentary layer of symbolism that serves to underpin Muhammad's treatment of the hajj as a monotheistic ritual. Ibrahim's duty to sacrifice Ismail (Ishmael; not Isaac as in the Biblical tradition), Satan's three attempts to dissuade Ibrahim from following God's command, and the divine substitution of a ram for the blood sacrifice are celebrated at Mina during the festival of the Greater Sacrifice and the ritual stoning of the three pillars (see below). Mecca itself is believed to have been the wilderness sanctuary where Hajar (Hagar) and her infant son were escorted by Ibrahim. The Ka'bah stands on the site of a primordial temple where Adam is said to have prayed after his expulsion from paradise.[10]

In the centuries after the prophet's death, the political and logistical elements of the hajj underwent various developments and modifications, including the imposition (or cancellation) of a "pilgrim's tax," the popularization of various pilgrimage routes, the vicissitudes of political power among the secular authorities that oversaw the event, and the growth of an ever-broadening body of Muslim participants (which developed in tandem with the outward expansion of the religion). For instance, Muslims would historically gather at various meeting points in other great cities, and then proceed en masse toward Mecca, in groups that could comprise tens of thousands of pilgrims, with two of the most famous early hubs being located in Cairo and Damascus. Surviving records suggest, prior to the departure of the pilgrims from Egypt, that the Sultan would stand atop a platform of the famous Bab Zuwayla gate to officially watch the beginning of the annual pilgrimage.[11] Conversely, the Crusade years, which saw many of these territories under European control, led to the popularization of aquatic pilgrimage routes (i.e., traversing the Red Sea or the Nile).[12] Regardless of these contextual adaptations, it seems that the ritual itself has survived in a relatively unchanged form since its original, monotheistic rededication at the hands of Muhammad.

Modern Context

As of 2007, an estimated two million pilgrims participate in this annual pilgrimage.[13] Crowd-control techniques have become critical, and because of the large numbers of people, many of the rituals have become more stylized. It is not necessary to kiss the Black Stone, but merely to point at it on each circuit around the Kaaba. Throwing pebbles was done at large pillars, which for safety reasons were in 2004 changed to long walls with catch basins below to catch the stones. The slaughter of an animal can be done either personally, or by appointing someone else to do it, and so forth.[14] But even with the crowd control techniques, there are still many accidental incidents during the hajj, as pilgrims are trampled in the crush, or ramps collapse under the weight of the many visitors, causing hundreds of deaths. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj has a website, with the message, "Be peaceful, orderly and kind. No crushing."[15]

An additional issue with the modern hajj is a geo-political one: namely the fact that Mecca, the required destination for these millions of pilgrims, is located within the domain of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—an embattled Middle Eastern nation whose relations with neighboring countries are often strained. Some of the difficulties that arise from this are explored by Andrew Rippin:

The pilgrimage, a ritual required for all Muslims who are able, takes place not solely on a personal level but also as a ritual which is undertaken in a modern nation-state, Saudi Arabia. It is, therefore, both under the control of that state and also that state’s responsibility. In 1987, over 400 pilgrims, mainly Iranians, were killed during violent demonstrations. As a result, the Saudi government cut ties with Iran and limited the number of Iranian pilgrims to 45,000. Iran retaliated by refusing to allow participation in the hajj at all. This situation lasted until 1991, when Iranians once again joined in; estimates for that year’s total pilgrimage participation were put at 2 million. Regulations concerning how often foreign residents of Saudi Arabia may perform the pilgrimage are another method instituted by the government to control attendance. The idea that participation in a fundamental ritual of the religion should be controlled by a given political regime has created substantial difficulties for some Muslims; calls for the internationalization of Mecca are sometimes voiced as a result. The political aspects of the issue—the alliances between Saudi Arabia and the United States being a focal point of many allegations—result in the pilgrimage frequently becoming a symbolic element in the struggle between modern nations.[16]

At present, the hajj, in addition to its inestimable religious significance, is also a tremendous engine of economic redistribution, as it annually brings Muslims from the four corners of the globe back to Saudi Arabia. This influx of "pilgrim dollars" (as opposed to "tourist dollars") from other economies has a large impact throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

[The] Pilgrimage to Mecca had far-reaching economic consequences for the Nigerian economy. The creation of the National Pilgrims Welfare Board with zonal offices has already been noted. Each zonal office of the Board had a staff strength of not less than twenty workers, ranging from cleaner to zonal supervisor. Apart from the personnel, each zonal office was provided with an office building and other operational facilities, such as motor vehicles, equipment and so on. If one takes into account staff emoluments and maintenance of motor vehicles and equipment, a modest estimate of the running cost per month of each zonal office may not have been less than fifteen thousand naira (N15,000.00). On this basis, the running cost of all the zonal offices put together would have stood at eighty thousand naira (N80,000.00) per month.

Apart from the National Pilgrims Board there were also State Pilgrims Welfare Boards, particularly in the northern states. Each State Pilgrim Board had a Board of Governors, a Secretary, a Principal Pilgrim Welfare Officer, a Senior Accountant and a number of intermediate and junior employees, resulting in a staff strength of between thirty and forty workers, Board members not included. A fleet of official vehicles were also maintained, both at home and in Saudi Arabia, by each State Pilgrim Board. To meet expenses in all these areas, each State Pilgrim Board may have required not less than fifty thousand naira (N50,000.00) per month.[17]

Ritual Observances


Pilgrims generally travel to hajj in groups, as an expression of unity. The advent of modern transportation technologies (such as aviation) have considerably streamlined this process, with some airlines offering special holiday rates for Muslims traveling to Mecca.[18]

Before departing for Mecca, the future pilgrim is required to make an invocation, known as the talbiyah, which commemorates their intentions to participate in the hajj. This is but the first of many practices that highlight the special status of the pilgrimage in the Muslim consciousness. In commemoration of this vow (and in recognition of the standards of ritual purity expected of participants), male pilgrims are required to wear the ihram: a garment consisting of two sheets of white unhemmed cloth, with the top draped over the torso and the bottom secured by a white sash; plus a pair of sandals. Women are simply required to maintain their hijab—normal modest dress, which does not cover the hands or face.[14] This ritual dress is intended to show the equality of all pilgrims in the eyes of Allah, symbolizing the notion that, among pilgrims, there is no difference between a prince and a pauper. Likewise, the ihram also represents the purity requirements required of each participant, as each pilgrim is prohibited from shaving, cutting their nails, wearing deodorant or perfume, swearing or quarreling, killing any living thing (even an insect), and engaging in sexual intercourse.[19]

Arrival in Mecca

The route the pilgrims take during the hajj

If they are not already wearing it upon their arrival, pilgrims put on their ihram clothing, and then leave Mecca for the nearby town of Mina, where they spend the rest of the day. The Saudi government has put up thousands of large white tents at Mina, to provide accommodations for all the pilgrims.[5]


Direction of the Tawaf

On the first day of the hajj, the eighth day of Dhul Hijjah {the twelfth month}, the pilgrims perform their first Tawaf. This consists of walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba seven times. Men are encouraged to perform the first three circuits at a hurried pace, followed by four times, more closely, at a leisurely pace.[14] On each circuit the pilgrim is supposed to kiss the Black Stone of Mecca, but this is often not possible because of the large crowds, and so it is acceptable to simply point at the stone on each circuit. This practice is understood to represent the manner in which the angels (and the entirety of creation) exist in a perpetual orbit around the Divine.[20]


After Tawaf, the pilgrims perform sa`I, running or walking seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah. This is a reenactment of Hajar's frantic search for water, before the Zamzam Well was revealed to her by an angel of God. The circuit used to be in the open air, but is now entirely enclosed by the Masjid al-Haram mosque, and can be accessed via air-conditioned tunnels. Pilgrims are advised to walk the circuit, though two green pillars mark a short section of the path where they are allowed to run, along with an “express lane” for the disabled. The safety procedures are in place because of previous incidents in the performance of this ritual, which have resulted in stampedes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Dr. Ali Shariati offers a theological explanation for the practice:

Sa'i is a search. It is a movement with an aim. It is depicted by running and hurrying. During tawaf (circumambulation) you acted as Hajar. In Ibrahim's position you acted as Ibrahim and Ismail. Once you begin "trying" (Sa'i) you are acting as Hajar again.

Here is a true demonstration of oneness. Shapes, patterns, colors, degrees, personalities, borders, distinctions and distances are destroyed. Naked man and stripped humanity are on the scene! Nothing but faith, belief and action are eminent! Here nobody is spoken of; even Ibrahim, Ismail and Hajar are only names, words and symbols. Whatever exists is moving constantly, humanity and spirituality and between them only discipline. Furthermore, this is Hajj, a decision for an eternal movement in a certain direction. It is also how the whole world moves.[21]

As part of this ritual, the pilgrims also drink water from the Zamzam Well, which is made available in coolers throughout the mosque. The pilgrims then return to their tents.


Plains of Arafat on the day of Hajj

The next morning, on the ninth of Dhu al-Hijjah, the pilgrims leave Mina for Mount Arafat. This is considered the highlight of the hajj, which involves the performance of a contemplative vigil near the hill where Muhammad gave his last sermon. Pilgrims must spend the afternoon within a defined area on the plain of Arafat until after sunset. No specific rituals or prayers are required during the stay at Arafat, although many pilgrims spend time praying, talking to God, and thinking about the course of their lives.[5]


As soon as the sun sets, the pilgrims leave Arafat for Muzdalifah, an area between Arafat and Mina, where 49 pebbles are gathered for the next day's ritual of the stoning of the Devil. Many pilgrims spend the night sleeping on the ground at Muzdalifah, before returning to Mina. It is then the tenth of the month, the day of Eid ul-Adha.

Ramy al-Jamarat

At Mina, the pilgrims perform Ramy al-Jamarat, throwing stones to signify their defiance of the Devil. This symbolizes the trials experienced by Abraham, as he wrestled with the decision of whether or not to sacrifice his son per God's demand. The Devil challenged him three times, and three times Abraham refused. Each pillar marks the location of one of these refusals. Because of the crowds, in 2004 the pillars were changed to long walls. Pilgrims climb ramps to the multi-leveled Jamarat Bridge, from which they can throw pebbles at the three jamarat. Each pilgrim must hit each pillar at least seven times.[5]

Eid ul-Adha

After the Stoning of the Devil, an animal is sacrificed, in commemoration of God's mercy in relieving Abraham from the burden of having to sacrifice his son. Traditionally the pilgrim slaughtered the animal himself or oversaw the slaughtering. Today many pilgrims buy a sacrifice voucher in Mecca before the greater hajj begins; this allows an animal to be slaughtered in their name on the tenth without the pilgrim being physically present. The efficiently organized network of butchers who redeem these vouchers will, at the appropriate time, sacrifice a single sheep for each pilgrim or a cow for seven. The meat is then packaged and given to charity, typically by being shipped to poor people around the world. At the same time as the sacrifices occur at Mecca, Muslims worldwide perform similar sacrifices, in a three day global festival called Eid ul-Adha.[5][22]

Tawaf az-Ziyarah

On this or the following day the pilgrims revisit the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca for another round of circumambulations (tawaf) called the Tawaf az-Ziyarah (or Tawaf al-Ifadah), which is an obligatory part of the hajj. The night of the tenth is spent back at Mina. On the afternoon of the eleventh, pilgrims must again stone all three jamarat in Mina (seven pebbles per jamarat). The same ritual must be performed on the following day. Pilgrims must leave Mina for Mecca before sunset on the twelfth. If they are unable to leave Mina before sunset, they must perform the stoning ritual again on the thirteenth before returning to Mecca.[23]

Tawaf al-Wada

Finally, before leaving Mecca, pilgrims perform a final circuit of the Kabaa called the Tawaf al-Wada (literally "farewell tawaf").[5]

Journey to Medina

Though it is not required as part of the hajj, many pilgrims also travel to visit the city of Medina and the Mosque of the Prophet. Muhammad's tomb is enclosed by the mosque. Pilgrims may also visit the tomb of Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah.[24]

Incidents during the Hajj

There have been many incidents during the hajj that have led to the loss of hundreds of lives. The worst of these incidents have usually occurred during the Stoning of the Devil ritual. During the 2006 hajj on January 12, 362 pilgrims died. Trampling has also occurred at the stage known as the sa'y, when pilgrims try to run but can walk between two hills known as As-Safa and Al-Marwa. In 2006, there were some 600 casualties among pilgrims performing the hajj.

The Saudi Government is often criticized for not being proactive in providing facilities and infrastructure for the annual pilgrimage. Many measures are put in place in response to annual catastrophes.


The umrah comprises the same rituals as the hajj, and can be taken at any time throughout the year. Although completing it is highly commendable, Muslims are still required to perform the greater hajj at some point during their lifetime. Pilgrims accomplishing the umrah usually only perform the tawaf (walking around the Kaaba) and the sa'i (running back and forth from the Zamzam Well to the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah). They may also drink water from the Zamzam Well when the umrah is completed, and trim off approximately one inch of their hair, as opposed to shaving their heads.


  1. Cyril Glassé, The New Encyclopedia of Islam (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001 ISBN 0759101892), 358.
  2. Caesar Farah, Islam: Beliefs and Observances, 5th ed. (Barron’s Educational Series, 1994 ISBN 978-0812018530), 145–147.
  3. Dalia Salah-El-Deen, Significance of Pilgrimage (Hajj), IslamOnline.net. Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: Modern Library. 2002. ISBN 0-8129-6618-x).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 National Geographic, Inside Mecca, YouTube.com. Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  6. Glassé, Encyclopedia of Islam, 359; John L. Esposito (ed.), "Hajj," Oxford Dictionary of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003; Oxford Reference Online). Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  7. Mark J. Sedgwick, Islam & Muslims: A Guide to Diverse Experience in a Modern World (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2006 ISBN 1931930163), 80.
  8. Gerald Hawting, “Pilgrimage,” Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliife (Leiden: Brill, 2001 ISBN 9004123555), 92.
  9. Richard C. Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987 ISBN 0029094801), 338–339; see also Andrew Petersen, “The Archaeology of the Syrian and Iraqi Hajj Routes,” World Archaeology 26, no. 1 (June 1994): 47–56: "The term Hajj derives from ancient Semitic custom and was used to describe a journey to a sacred place (Wensinck 1971: 31). According to Islamic tradition the Hajj predates Muhammad and recalls the journey of lbrahim. Historically the hajj seems to be linked to festivals which took place in Mecca during which time there would be a period of peace between the various tribes. The journey to the sacred hill of Arafat, 25 km from Mecca, plays a central role in the Islamic Hajj, although the circumambulation of the Ka'ba is regarded as the first duty of a pilgrim. The rites of the Muslim Hajj were proclaimed by Muhammad in a sermon he gave, known as the Farewell Pilgrimage, in the tenth year of the Hijra; after Muhammad's death other customs were added -such as a visit to his grave at Medina, although this is in no sense forms part of the Hajj (for a full description of these, see Shahabuddin 1986: 55-72)" (47).
  10. Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” 339.
  11. DK Publishing, Eyewitness Travel: Egypt (DK Travel, 2007 ISBN 978-0-75662-875-8), 103.
  12. F. E. Peters’ The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places explores many of these historical facts in detail. In particular, see "Mecca and the Ways Thither" (60–108) and "Under New Auspices" (144–205). See also Andrew Petersen, “The Archaeology of the Syrian and Iraqi Hajj Routes,” for an overview of the historical pilgrimage routes followed in Iraq and Syria.
  13. Zahed Amanullah, As Hajj begins, more changes and challenges in store, altmuslim.com. Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Mamdouh N. Mohamed, Hajj to Umrah: From A to Z (Amana Publications, 1996 ISBN 0-915957-54-x).
  15. Ministry of Hajj, Hajj, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  16. Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Volume 2: The Contemporary Period (London and New York: Routledge, 1993 ISBN 0415045193), 139.
  17. O. E. Tangban, "The Hajj and the Nigerian Economy 1960-1981," Journal of Religion in Africa 21, no. 3 (August 1991): 241–255.
  18. Rippin explores the socio-economic and religious consequences of the fact that many Muslims worldwide need to rely on air travel in order to participate in the hajj (140).
  19. Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” 341–342.
  20. John L. Esposito (ed.), "Tawaf," Oxford Dictionary of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003; Oxford Reference Online) Retrieved November 9, 2007.
  21. Ali Shariati, Hajj: Reflection on Its Rituals (Islamic Publications International, 2005 ISBN 1889999385), 39; see also Peters, The Hajj, 18–19.
  22. Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” 344.
  23. Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” 344–345.
  24. Peters, The Hajj, 138–143; Martin, “Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage,” 345.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002. ISBN 081296618x.
  • Bianchi, Robert R. Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0195171075.
  • DK Publishing. Eyewitness Travel: Egypt. London: DK Travel, 2007. ISBN 978-0756628758.
  • Farah, Caesar. Islam: Beliefs and Observances, 5th ed. Barron's Educational Series, 1994. ISBN 978-0812018530.
  • Glassé, Cyril. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0759101892.
  • Hawting, Gerald. "Pilgrimage." Encyclopaedia of the Qur'ān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Leiden: Brill, 2001. ISBN 9004123555.
  • Martin, Richard C. "Pilgrimage: Muslim Pilgrimage." The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan, 1987. ISBN 0029094802.
  • Mohamed, Mamdouh N. Hajj to Umrah: From A to Z. Amana Publications, 1996. ISBN 091595754x.
  • Peters, F. E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. ISBN 069102619X.
  • Petersen, Andrew. "The Archaeology of the Syrian and Iraqi Hajj Routes." World Archaeology 26 (1) (1994): 47–56.
  • Rippin, Andrew. Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Vol. 2: The Contemporary Period. London and New York: Routledge, 1993 (originally 1990). ISBN 0415045193.
  • Sedgwick, Mark J. Islam & Muslims: A Guide to Diverse Experience in a Modern World. Boston: Intercultural Press, 2006. ISBN 1931930163.
  • Shariati, Ali. Hajj: Reflection on Its Rituals. Islamic Publications International, 2005. ISBN 1889999385.
  • Trojanow, Ilija. From Mumbai to Mecca. London: Haus Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1904950295.

External links

All links retrieved January 21, 2024.


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