MECCA • The haj is no longer an old person's ritual as a new generation of youthful Muslim pilgrims has transformed both the annual rites and Mecca itself.
"The younger you are, the easier it is," said Ms Saniah, a British pilgrim who, at 25, was on her second trip to Islam's holiest site in Saudi Arabia.
"Twelve years ago, my family and I came for umrah (a minor pilgrimage)," she said, elegantly veiled in green and black. This year, she returned for the haj because it is a religious obligation and "a radical change of life", she said, preferring not to give her last name.
She is among roughly 1.5 million people from across the world attending the haj which formally began yesterday.
Holding a can of soft drink in one hand and a cone of French fries in the other, Ms Saniah ate with her husband at one of the many modern commercial centres dotted around the Grand Mosque in Mecca after performing Friday prayers.
"In earlier generations, young people waited to be old before doing the pilgrimage," Ms Saniah said. "But the new generations - we're more aware of our religious obligations."
Smiling, she added that the long haj marches and prayers under a burning sun "are easier to bear when you're young".
Mr Omar Saghi, author of Paris-Mecca, Sociology Of The Pilgrimage, said the haj is no longer "the mystical horizon of an entire life but a rational event" which has become almost routine.
Mr Mohammed, 33, who travelled to the haj with his wife from France, said a number of their friends had already performed the haj. Their travel agency told them it is also sending many other young couples.
Mr Mohammed noted he is sometimes uncomfortable with all the modern conveniences which are "very far from the time of Abraham and the harshness of the desert" thousands of years ago. "The shops, the luxury, the commercial centres - they cloud the spiritual aspect," said the physical education teacher.