In a series of programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslim pilgrims from around the world as they prepare to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage.

It is an ancient land at the crossroads of Europe and Central Asia and is said to have been the location of the Garden of Eden.

As the saying goes, when the world knocks you down on your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray

Salamova Samira, Hajj pilgrim

Different cultures and civilisations have met in Azerbaijan for thousands of years and the country was one of the first to embrace Islam when Arabian invaders imposed their religion on the region in the seventh century.

But when Azerbaijan fell under the control of the former Soviet Union in 1920, atheism became state policy; many Muslim leaders were exiled or killed and mosques were closed down or destroyed.

When the country regained its independence in 1991, many embarked on a journey to rediscover their faith and heritage and to fill the religious vacuum left by Communist rule.

Painful journey

Thirty-one-year-old Salamova Samira is a mother of two and part of the 95 per cent of Azerbaijanis who consider themselves Muslims. But, more significantly, she is one of only five per cent who actually practice their faith and is about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.

"I started praying when I was around 12 years old. There was only grandma [Samira's great-grandmother] who prayed in our family. She was 115 years old. She read the Quran," Samira says.

Salamova Samira thought she would have to save for years to go on Hajj [Al Jazeera]

"When I was a schoolgirl, I also took lessons to learn the Quran. This was difficult then as many people viewed Islam in a bad light, unlike today."

The older generation, like Samira's mother, lived their lives without observing the central tenets of their religion and, more often than not, do not feel any need to start doing it now.

Samira will travel from Baku, the country's capital where she lives, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. But, for her, the road to Hajj has been a long one marked by pain and hardship.

"I had been praying until I turned 17. Then I got married and stopped praying. Having a family with children, I just could not find the time.

"My husband was a Muslim too. He was not against the fact that I prayed regularly. But I just could not do it. I have two daughters, aged 11 and 13 years old," she explains.

Her relationship with her husband soured and after five years of marriage they divorced.

"As the saying goes, when the world knocks you down on your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray," she says.

Performing the pilgrimage seemed like an impossible dream for Samira.

Although she earns a decent living as a house-keeping manager at a hotel, she knew it would take her years to save enough money to go on Hajj.

"Going to the Hajj was my dream. But with my salary, it was not possible. I always thought it would take a miracle for me to go," she says.

But fate was to intervene for Samira when a friend of her mother offered to sponsor her pilgrimage.

Islamic revival

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has witnessed something of an Islamic revival; hundreds of new mosques have been built, old ones have been restored and new religious schools have been opened.

For many young Azerbaijanis, like Samira, an interest in Islam is re-emerging and stronger than ever.

"I can not describe my feelings, the first was fear. At the same time, I feel happy too," Samira says.

"After the Hajj, you would expect more of yourself. Before the Hajj, you can make some mistakes, but after the Hajj, you should be more careful in making your decisions.

"Everyone makes mistakes, commits sin, and lies. After the Hajj, you should not go back to your old ways. It is easy to go to the Hajj, but after that, it is as if you are born again, you become clean and innocent."

"And you should keep yourself that way. That is very hard. That is why I am afraid. But I will go and when I come back, I hope I can manage to do so."

WATCH PART TWO:


Road to Hajj - Azerbaijan  first aired in November 2010.

Source: Al Jazeera