More than two million Muslims from around the globe started the hajj pilgrimage on Sunday in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings in a country undergoing unprecedented change.
The ultra-conservative kingdom — where religion remains a guiding force amid dramatic social and economic reforms — has mobilised vast resources for the six-day journey, one of the five pillars of Islam.
“It’s the dream of every Muslim to come here to Mecca,” Frenchman Soliman Ben Mohri said.
“It’s the ultimate journey. What worries me is the return to my normal life. For the moment, I am in a dream,” the 53-year old told AFP.
Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj journey to Islam’s holiest sites at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed for the pilgrimage, which was struck by its worst ever disaster three years ago when around 2,300 worshippers were crushed to death in a stampede.
This year, the Saudis have launched a “smart hajj” initiative, with apps to help pilgrims with everything from travel plans to medical care.
The interior ministry said on Saturday that the number of pilgrims arriving in Mecca had already surpassed the two million mark, mostly from abroad including large contingents from Egypt, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Wearing the simple white garb of the pilgrim, most of the faithful began moving on Sunday from Mecca to the nearby Mina valley.
They will spend the night there in fire-resistant tents in the desert, where temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Thousands of buses and vehicles carrying the pilgrims lined the eight kilometre (five-mile) road from Mecca to Mina. Many pilgrims made the journey walking under the scorching sun.
For the Muslim faithful, hajj retraces the last steps of the Prophet Mohammed and also honors the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
It ends with the Eid al-Adha feast, which is marked by the slaughter of sheep, a tribute to Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son.