MECCA • More than two million Muslims from around the world yesterday began the haj pilgrimage at Islam's holiest sites.
This year sees pilgrims from Shi'ite Iran return to Mecca in Saudi Arabia after a hiatus following a diplomatic spat between the regional rivals and a deadly stampede in 2015.
It also comes with the Gulf mired in a major political crisis that has seen thousands who would usually make the journey from neighbouring Qatar stay away.
On the esplanade of Mecca's Grand Mosque, the excitement was palpable as crowds from all four corners of the world gathered for a pilgrimage that all able Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lives.
Mr Tidjani Traore, a public service consultant from Benin, said he was on his 22nd pilgrimage at the age of 53.
"Every time, there are new emotions," he said. "There are new innovations for organising and hosting the pilgrims. Now, for example, the tents are air-conditioned."
Wearing the simple garb of the pilgrim, the faithful waited at dawn with their suitcases for buses to take them to Mina 5km to the east. There, hundreds of thousands will gather before setting off today at dawn to climb Mount Arafat, the pinnacle of the haj.
But they must first perform a ritual walk, known as the tawaf, seven times around the Kaaba, a black masonry cube at the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque.
The shrine is the point towards which Muslims around the world pray.
The Saudi authorities have mobilised vast resources, including more than 100,000 security personnel, to avoid a repeat of the stampede in 2015 in which nearly 2,300 people were killed.
Iran alone reported 464 deaths - the highest toll among foreigners.