Makkah: Thousands of worshipers flocked to the Muslim holiest city of Mecca on Friday, with more than two million expected to attend, braving the Saudi Arabian heat.
White-robed and sandal-clad pilgrims fill the ancient city, now lined with luxury hotels and air-conditioned shopping malls, flooding planes, buses and trains for the annual ritual.
Officials said this year’s Haj — one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, with a tragic history of stampedes and other disasters — could break attendance records.
„As the Hajj approaches, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia … is preparing for the largest Islamic gathering in history,” Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiyya said in a video released by the ministry this week.
Rituals include circumambulating the Kaaba, the great black cube at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, praying on Mount Arafat and „stoning the devil” by throwing pebbles at three large concrete walls representing Satan.
More than two million people from more than 160 countries will attend, Rabia said — a dramatic increase from 926,000 last year, when the number hit one million following the Covid-19 pandemic.
About 1.5 million pilgrims from abroad had already arrived by Wednesday evening, Saudi officials said.
In 2019, around 2.5 million people participated. Only 10,000 were admitted in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, rising to nearly 59,000 a year later.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed by all Muslims at least once in their lifetime.
Travelers from all over the world flock into Jeddah’s modernized airport, some of whom use streamlined visa services to board buses straight from planes to their accommodation.
About 24,000 buses will be in service to ferry pilgrims and 17 trains that can move 72,000 people every hour, officials said.
„It’s an incredible feeling, very emotional,” 60-year-old Moroccan pilgrim Saud Bin Ouis told AFP after her first visit to Saudi Arabia with her husband.
The Hajj will be the largest since 2021, when the requirement for women to be accompanied by a male guardian was dropped.
This year, the upper age limit was lifted, meaning thousands of seniors will be among those battling Saudi summer temperatures expected to reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).
Hajj rituals begin late Sunday at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Pilgrims will sleep in tents on Monday night and spend Tuesday at the culmination of the Hajj at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
After pelting pebbles in Wednesday’s „stoning at the devil” ritual to mark the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday, pilgrims return to Mecca to perform a farewell „tawaf” — circumambulating seven times around the Kaaba.
Pilgrimages to Mecca are a major source of income for Saudi Arabia, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to overhaul its largely oil-based economy. Hajj and Umrah rituals throughout the year generate $12 billion annually.
The expansion plan, which includes infrastructure and transportation to support the Islamic holiest sites of Mecca and Medina, is a key part of the economic plan as it looks to boost visitor numbers.
This year’s summer time for the hajj, which follows the lunar calendar, will test the endurance of pilgrims during the four-day, mostly outdoor ritual.
More than 32,000 health workers will help prevent heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion.
But severe weather is one of the risks at an event plagued by deadly incidents, from stampedes to terrorist attacks.
Eight years ago in 2015, 2,300 worshipers died in a stampede during the „stoning of the devil” ritual at Mina near Mecca, the worst Haj disaster ever.
In 1979, more than 700 people were killed when hundreds of gunmen barricaded themselves inside the Grand Mosque and took dozens of pilgrims hostage, demanding the resignation of the Saudi royal family.
Ahead of Hajj, the security forces held a military parade in Mecca, in which soldiers dressed in full camouflage carried automatic weapons.
Dr. Karim, who focuses on Saudi foreign policy at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said performing the Hajj is a source of honor and legitimacy for the Saudi rulers as custodians of the holy sites.
Pilgrimage „gives a great deal of value and prestige to the kingdom and its rulers and becomes a major source of the kingdom’s soft power”.
. „Gracz. Namiętny pionier w mediach społecznościowych. Wielokrotnie nagradzany miłośnik muzyki. Rozrabiacz”.