Hajj pilgrimage begins in Mecca

During this year's Hajj, Syrian pilgrims have been able to travel to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in over a decade 
Miles de peregrinos en la celebración del Hajj en La Meca, Arabia Saudí - PHOTO/PEXELS/Haydan Assoendawy
Thousands of pilgrims at the Hajj celebration in Mecca, Saudi Arabia - PHOTO/PEXELS/Haydan Assoendawy

More than 1.5 million Muslims from around the world have already gathered in and around Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage, while the number continues to grow as more pilgrims from Saudi Arabia join.   

Saudi authorities expect the number to exceed 2 million this year, despite the turbulent situation in the Middle East marked by the war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, as well as fears of a regional conflict between the Hebrew state and the Islamic Republic of Iran's proxies in the region.   

According to the AP, Gazans have been unable to travel to Mecca for the Hajj this year due to the closure of the Rafah crossing in May, when Israel extended its ground offensive to the southern Palestinian enclave city on the border with Egypt. 

By contrast, Palestinian officials claimed that 4,200 pilgrims from the West Bank were able to reach Mecca for the Hajj, while 1,000 relatives of Gazans killed or wounded in the war travelled to take part in the religious event at the invitation of Saudi Arabia's King Salman. The 1,000 guests were already outside Gaza, mostly in Egypt, before the Rafah crossing was closed. 

Also, during this year's Hajj, Syrian pilgrims were able to travel to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in more than a decade. Syrians in rebel-held areas used to cross the border into neighbouring Turkey on their journey to Mecca for the Hajj. 

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, so all Muslims should perform the five-day Hajj at least once in a lifetime if they have the physical and financial ability to do so. 

AFP/ABDULGANI BASHEER - Esta vista aérea muestra la Gran Mezquita de La Meca y su torre del reloj con la Kaaba, el lugar más sagrado del Islam en el centro, el 27 de junio de 2023 durante la peregrinación anual del Hajj
This aerial view shows Mecca's Grand Mosque and its clock tower with the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site in the centre - AFP/ABDULGANI BASHEER 

It is a moving spiritual experience for pilgrims, who believe it absolves sins and brings them closer to God, while uniting the more than 2 billion Muslims around the world.   

For many Muslims, the Hajj is the only major journey they make in their lives. Some spend years saving money and waiting for permission to undertake the journey to the Saudi Kingdom.  

The rituals during the Hajj largely commemorate the Qur'anic accounts of the Prophet Ibrahim, his son the Prophet Ismail and Ismail's mother, Hajar, or Abraham and Ishmael, as they are named in the Bible. 

Male pilgrims wear an ihram, two unsewn white cloth sheets, while women wear modest, loose-fitting clothes with their hair covered and without make-up or perfume. 

Saudi authorities have adopted security restrictions in and around Mecca - PHOTO/FILE

The Saudi authorities have adopted security restrictions in and around Makkah with checkpoints on the roads leading into the city to prevent those without Hajj permits from reaching the holy sites. 

In this regard, security forces have arrested many people who tried to take pilgrims to Mecca who did not have Hajj permits, said Lieutenant General Muhammad al-Bassami, head of the Hajj Security Committee. Most were expelled from the country, while travel agents faced jail terms of up to six months, according to the Interior Ministry. Many pilgrims whose documentation was incomplete paid fines to gain entry to Mecca, AP reports. 

This Friday the pilgrims headed to Mina, officially opening the Hajj. They will then move on to Mount Arafat, a desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final speech, known as the Farewell Sermon. Pilgrims who are able make the journey on foot, others use the bus or train. 

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Pilgrimage to Mount Arafat - PHOTO/FILE

The time of year when the Hajj takes place varies depending on the Islamic lunar calendar. When it falls in the summer months, temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius. This year, the Ministry of Health warned that temperatures at holy sites could reach 48 degrees Celsius. Most Hajj rituals take place outdoors, with little or no shade.  

After Saturday's day in Arafat, pilgrims will travel a few kilometres to Muzdalifa to collect stones to be used in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil.

The pilgrims then return to Mina for three days, coinciding with the festival of Eid al-Adha, when wealthy Muslims from all over the world slaughter livestock and distribute the meat to the poor. Finally, they return to Mecca for a final circumambulation. 

In recent years, the annual pilgrimage has returned to its normal scale after three years of severe restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2023, more than 1.8 million pilgrims performed the Hajj, approaching the level of 2019, when more than 2.4 million took part.