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Over 1.5 million pilgrims arrive in Makkah for haj

MAKKAH (AP) – Muslim pilgrims have been streaming into Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah ahead of the start of the haj later this week, as the annual pilgrimage returns to its monumental scale.

Saudi officials said more than 1.5 million foreign pilgrims have arrived in the country by Tuesday, the vast majority by air, from across the world. More are expected, and hundreds of thousands of Saudis and others living in Saudi Arabia will also join them when the pilgrimage officially begins.

Saudi officials have said they expect the number of pilgrims this year to exceed those in 2023, when more than 1.8 million people performed haj, approaching pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, over 2.4 million Muslims made the pilgrimage. Saudi authorities control the flow of pilgrims through quotas, allowing each country one pilgrim for every thousand Muslim citizens.

The pilgrims included 4,200 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who arrived in Makkah earlier this month, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were not able to travel to Saudi Arabia for Haj this year, because of the situation there.

“We are praying for Palestine to be free and for Palestinians to liberate their land and to be like other nations, to live in peace and not always to have war,” said Algerian pilgrim Ibrahim al-Hadhari as he was standing in the Grand Mosque court waiting for evening prayers.

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the Grand Mosque, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AP

On Tuesday, pilgrims thronged the Grand Mosque in Makkah, performing a ritual circuit walking seven times around the Kaabah, the cube-shaped structure inside the mosque that is considered Islam’s holiest site. They wore ihrams, two unstitched sheets of white cloth that resemble a shroud.

Many were seen sweating heavily from the burning sun. Others were carrying umbrellas against the sun as temperatures reached 42 and 45 degrees Celsius during the day on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

“I was relieved when I arrived at the Masjidil Haram and saw the Kaabah,” said Moroccan woman Rabeia al-Raghi, who came to Makkah for haj along with her husband and their daughter. “I am very happy.”

Iraqi pilgrim Mohammad Abdel-Baset said he was overjoyed to perform haj.

“We congratulate the great crowd and thank Allah the Almighty for gathering us from all regions, globally and not from the Arab world only, from all the global Muslim regions (who) came to the Grand Mosque,” said lawyer Abdel-Baset from Baghdad.

At night, the vast marble court around the Kaabah was packed with the faithful, walking nearly shoulder to shoulder and often jostling with barricades set up by security forces to direct the giant flows of people in and around the Grand Mosque.

Shopping in Makkah flourishes during haj. Pilgrims were seen shopping from malls and stores in the city’s centrepiece, the monumental Makkah Royal Clock Tower which faces the Grand Mosque’s main entrance.

“Trade movement is always excellent during Haj,” said Bander Mohammed al-Juwayri, who owns a watch store a few metres from the Grand Mosque. “Haj season strongly helps the economy.”

Pilgrims do the circumambulation, known as tawaf in Arabic, upon arriving in Makkah. The large crowds circling the Kaabah will last into the haj’s first day.

The pilgrims will move to Mina, before heading the following day to the Mountain of Arafat for a day-long vigil. They will then head to Muzdalifah, a rocky plain area a few miles away. In Muzdalifah, pilgrims collect pebbles to be used in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil back in Mina.

One of the world’s largest religious gatherings, the haj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All Muslims are required to undertake it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do so.

Those in the haj view the pilgrimage as an opportunity to strengthen their faith, wipe out old sins and start new.