On Sunday, vast numbers of robed Muslim believers made sombre loops around the Kaaba, the black cube at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, to kick off the largest hajj pilgrimage in several years, in the heat of the Saudi summer.
The yearly festivities at Islam’s holiest site are anticipated to draw more than two million worshippers from 160 nations, potentially breaking attendance records, with 1.6 million foreigners already arriving by late Friday.
“This year, we will witness the largest hajj pilgrimage in history,” if things go according to plan, predicted an official with the Saudi ministry of hajj and umrah.
“The numbers will exceed 2.5 million pilgrims,” added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak with the press.
The hajj began early on Sunday with the “tawaf” — the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold trimmings that Muslims around the world pray towards every day.
“I am living the most beautiful days of my life,” said Saeed Abdel Azim, a 65-year-old Egyptian performing the ritual. “The dream has come true,” added the retiree, who had saved for 20 years to pay the thousands of dollars needed to take part.
The hajj is one of Islam’s five pillars and must be performed at least once by all Muslims who have the means.
Over four days, a variety of rites are performed in Mecca and its environs in western Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich kingdom.
Pilgrims began going to Mina, approximately five kilometers (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, on Sunday afternoon, ahead of the hajj’s culmination at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last speech.
Mina, the world’s largest tent city, prepared for the inflow of pilgrims by bringing in food supplies and deploying security forces throughout the area.
More pilgrims are anticipated to arrive in Mina on Monday, creating a lively mood in the tented city with the entrance of pilgrims on foot or by airconditioned buses.