MOUNT ARAFAT: More than two million Muslims from around the world began the hajj pilgrimage at Islam’s holiest sites Wednesday, a religious duty and a multi-stage spiritual journey.
This year sees pilgrims from Shiite 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 of faithful 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.
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 five kilometres (three miles) to the east.
There, hundreds of thousands were gathering before they set off on Thursday at dawn to climb Mount Arafat, the pinnacle of the hajj.
In the midst of a hot desert breeze, the first arrivals prepared to spend the night in tents on the plain below Mount Arafat.
“I will spend the evening in prayer before we climb up the mountain for the dawn prayer,” said a 72-year-old Tunisian woman, stretched out on a mattress.