Worshipers in white robes from around the world filled the streets of Islam’s holiest city ahead of the biggest Hajj pilgrimage since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Banners welcoming the faithful, including the first foreign visitors since 2019, adorned squares and lanes, and armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.
“It’s pure joy,” Sudanese pilgrim Abdel Qader Kheder told AFP in Mecca ahead of the event, which officially begins on Wednesday. “I almost can’t believe I’m here. I enjoy every moment.”
One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed to perform the Hajj this year after two years of sharp decline due to the pandemic.
The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, which all able-bodied Muslims with means are required to undertake at least once.
On Monday afternoon, pilgrims with umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun flocked to souvenir shops and hairdressers in Mecca, while others shared their meal under palm trees in the streets near the Grand Mosque.
Many newcomers have already begun the first ritual, which requires a seven-fold circuit around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the center of the Grand Mosque.
Made of granite and draped in cloth with verses from the Qur’an, the Kaaba is nearly 15 meters (50 feet) high. It is the structure that all Muslims turn to to pray, no matter where they are in the world.
“When I first saw the Kaaba, I felt something strange and started crying,” Egyptian pilgrim Mohammed Lotfi told AFP.
Authorities said Sunday that at least 650,000 foreign pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia so far.
Some 2.5 million people took part in the rituals in 2019, including the gathering at Mount Arafat and the “stoning of the devil” in Mina.
The next year, when the pandemic broke out, foreigners were banned from entering and the number of believers was limited to 10,000 to prevent the Hajj from becoming a global super-spread.
In 2021, this figure has risen to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents.
This year’s pilgrims – only those under the age of 65 are allowed – will participate in the Hajj under strict sanitary conditions.
The Hajj has witnessed numerous disasters over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 people and an attack by hundreds of militants in 1979 that killed 153 people, according to official figures.
The pilgrimage is a powerful source of prestige for the conservative desert kingdom and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who returns from the diplomatic wilderness.
A few days after the hajj, Prince Mohammed will meet US President Joe Biden, who, given the soaring oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has backtracked on his promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “rogue state” in the wake of the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents . .
The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, is bringing in money for the world’s biggest oil exporter trying to diversify its economy. In ordinary years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.
It is also a chance to showcase the kingdom’s rapid social transformation despite constant complaints of human rights violations and restrictions on personal freedoms.
Saudi Arabia, which allowed raves in Riyadh and mixed beaches in Jeddah under recent reforms, is now allowing women to attend the hajj unaccompanied by male relatives. This requirement was abolished last year.
Masks are no longer mandatory in most indoor spaces in Saudi Arabia, but they will be mandatory in the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site. Pilgrims from abroad will be required to provide a negative PCR test result.
Authorities said the Grand Mosque would be “washed 10 times a day…by more than 4,000 men and women,” with more than 130,000 liters (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant being used each time.
Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, 9,000 of them fatal, in a population of about 34 million.
Apart from Covid, another problem is the scorching sun in one of the hottest and driest regions in the world, which is becoming even more extreme due to the effects of climate change.
Although summer has only just begun, temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.
But Iraqi pilgrim Ahmed Abdul-Hasan al-Fatlawi said the heat is the last thing he thinks about while in Mecca.
“I’m 60 so it’s okay if I get physically tired because of the hot weather, but I’m in a state of serenity and that’s all that matters to me,” he told AFP.