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Huge crowds circle Kaabah as haj begins in Saudi heat

SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – Vast crowds of robed pilgrims made solemn circles around the Kaabah, the black cube at Makkah’s Grand Mosque, yesterday as the biggest haj pilgrimage in years began in the heat of the Saudi summer.

Islam’s holiest site is expected to host more than two million worshippers from 160 countries during the annual rites that could break attendance records, with 1.6 million foreigners already arrived by Friday evening.

The haj began early yesterday with the tawaf – the circumambulation of the Kaabah, the large cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold trimmings that millions of Muslims pray towards every day.

“I am living the most beautiful days of my life,” said Abdel-Azim, a 65-year-old Egyptian as he performed the ritual.

“The dream has come true,” said the retiree, who saved up for 20 years to pay the USD6,000 fee to take part.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once.

A series of rites are completed over four days in Makkah and its surroundings in the west of Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, pilgrims started moving to Mina, about five kilometres from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the haj’s climax at Mount Arafat, where Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) delivered his final sermon.

Pilgrims gather around the Kaabah. PHOTO: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Worshippers and pilgrims around the Kabaah. PHOTO: AFP
An elevated view of the Grand Mosque. PHOTO: AFP

Outside the Grand Mosque, thousands prayed on colourful carpets that adorned the pavement, with male pilgrims wearing a simple white robe. The area was dotted with ambulances, mobile clinics and fire trucks.

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

There have been no major incidents since, and catastrophe was the last thing on pilgrims’ minds. “I cannot describe my feelings,” said 25-year-old Indonesian student Yusuf Burhan.

“This is a great blessing. I never imagined that I would perform the haj this year.”

This year’s summer timing for the haj, which follows the lunar calendar, will test the endurance of worshippers during the mostly outdoor ritual.

Carrying white umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun, policemen in the mountainous city have conducted foot patrols and set up checkpoints to inspect haj permits.

Others splashed water on pilgrims as temperatures climbed towards 45 degrees Celsius.

Inside the Grand Mosque, thousands of paramedics stood on standby. Saudi authorities said more than 32,000 health workers will be on hand to help fend off heatstroke, dehydration and exhaustion.

This year’s haj will be the biggest since 2019, when about 2.5 million people took part.

Only 10,000 were allowed in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, rising to nearly 59,000 in 2021. Last year’s cap of one million has been removed.

Saudi businessman Samir Al-Zafni said all his hotels in Makkah and Madinah are at full capacity until the first week of July.

“This year there is not a single vacant bed in our group of 67 hotels,” he told AFP from his office.

Leaving the Grand Mosque after evening prayers on Friday, Ramot Ali from Niger struggled to describe the feeling of performing haj for the first time. “I am very happy,” she said.