‘Largest hajj pilgrimage in history’ begins in Saudi Arabia

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Muslim worshipers and pilgrims gather at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on June 25, 2023 during the annual hajj pilgrimage.  — AFP
Muslim worshipers and pilgrims gather at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on June 25, 2023 during the annual hajj pilgrimage. — AFP
  • “This year we will witness the largest hajj pilgrimage in history,” said an official.
  • By the end of Friday, 1.6 million foreigners had already arrived in the kingdom.
  • “This year there is not a single bed available in our group of 67 hotels,” says a businessman.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world walked in solemn circles around the Kaaba, the black cube near the Great Mosque of Mecca, on Sunday to begin the largest hajj pilgrimage in years.

Islam’s holiest site is expected to host more than two million worshipers from 160 countries in annual rituals that can break visitor records, with 1.6 million foreigners already arriving on Friday.

“This year we will witness the largest hajj pilgrimage in history,” predicted an official from the Saudi ministry of hajj and umrah, if all goes according to plan.

“The number will exceed 2.5 million pilgrims,” ​​the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Hajj began early Sunday with the “tawaf” – the circumambulation of the Ka’aba, the large cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold decorations that Muslims around the world pray before each day.

“I’m living the happiest days of my life,” says Saeed Abdel Azim, a 65-year-old Egyptian who performs the ritual. “The dream came true,” added the retiree, who had saved for 20 years to pay for the thousands of dollars it took to participate.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once by all Muslims who have the means.

A series of rituals are performed over four days in Mecca and the surrounding area in western oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday afternoon, pilgrims began moving to Mina, about five kilometers (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Hajj’s climax on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his last sermon.

Mina, the world’s largest tent city, prepared to handle the influx of pilgrims, with food supplies and security forces arriving in the area.

More worshipers are expected to flock to Mina on Monday as a vibrant atmosphere grips the tent city with the arrival of pilgrims on foot or air-conditioned buses.

‘Great Blessing’

Outside the Grand Mosque, thousands prayed on colorful carpets that adorned the sidewalk, with male pilgrims wearing simple white robes. The area was littered with ambulances, mobile clinics and fire trucks.

The Hajj poses a significant security challenge and has seen several disasters over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 people.

No major incidents have occurred since then, and catastrophes were the last things on the pilgrims’ minds.

“I can’t describe my feelings,” says Indonesian student Yusuf Burhan, 25. “This is a great blessing. I never thought I would perform Hajj this year.”

This year’s summer timing for the Hajj, which follows the lunar calendar, tests the endurance of the worshipers during the mostly outdoor ritual.

Wearing white umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun, police officers in the mountainous city have been conducting foot patrols and setting up checkpoints to inspect hajj permits.

Others splashed water on pilgrims as temperatures rose to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Thousands of paramedics were on standby in the Grand Mosque. Saudi authorities said more than 32,000 health workers will be on hand to treat cases of heatstroke, dehydration and exhaustion.

‘Not a single empty bed’

The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, brings in billions of dollars a year for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, as it tries to diversify its economy away from fossil fuels.

This year will be the biggest since 2019, before the COVID pandemic, when about 2.5 million people participated.

In 2020, at the height of the global outbreak, only 10,000 were allowed, rising to nearly 59,000 in 2021.

Last year’s limit of one million has been removed.

Saudi businessman Samir al-Zafni said all his hotels in Mecca and Medina will be at full capacity until the first week of July.

“This year there is not a single bed available in our group of 67 hotels,” he said AFP.

The hajj also demonstrates social reform in the very conservative kingdom.

This year’s pilgrimage will be the largest since Saudi Arabia scrapped rules in 2021 that banned women who were not accompanied by a male relative.

Moroccan merchant Abdullah al-Haqouni, 65, waited for a car to take him away from Mecca’s Grand Mosque and said he was struggling with the temperature.

“I’m very tired. The heat is unbearable,” he said, holding a green umbrella.


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