MECCA (Saudi Arabia) • More than two million Muslims began the annual haj yesterday as the Saudi hosts seek to deter politicisation of the pilgrimage against a backdrop of simmering Gulf tensions.
The haj, one of the world's largest religious gatherings, is one of Islam's five pillars and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
It consists of a series of religious rites, which are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia. In total, some 2.5 million faithful, the majority from abroad, will undertake the pilgrimage this year, according to local media.
"More than 1.8 million visas were delivered online without the need for middlemen. It's a success," said haj ministry official Hatim Hassan Qadi.
Mecca, built in a desert valley, is home to the Kaaba, a cube structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth. Muslims around the world pray towards the Kaaba, which is located in the Grand Mosque, and pilgrims walk around it seven times.
During the pilgrimage, separate streams of men and women, grouped by nationality, will travel to Mina on foot or in buses provided by the authorities.
A district of Mecca, Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims. A total of "350,000 air-conditioned tents have been pitched", said a Saudi official.
Worshippers will climb Mount Arafat, also known as the "Mount of Mercy", for hours of prayers and Quran recitals. After descending, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil". That marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, which takes place tomorrow.
Pilgrims then return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final "tawaf" or walk around the Kaaba.
This year's haj takes place against a backdrop of Gulf tensions following a series of attacks on tankers and the downing of drones. Riyadh blames regional foe Teheran for the attacks on commercial shipping, accusations Iran vehemently denies.