Pilgrims begin hajj in Mecca, with 1,000 Gazans joining at invitation of Saudi king

Saudi authorities expect total number of Muslim worshipers to exceed 2 million; Palestinian authorities say 4,200 pilgrims from West Bank in attendance

Muslim worshipers pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on June 13, 2024, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage (Fadel Senna/AFP)
Muslim worshipers pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on June 13, 2024, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage (Fadel Senna/AFP)

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — In sweltering temperatures, Muslim pilgrims in Mecca converged on a vast tent camp in the desert on Friday, officially opening the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Ahead of their trip, they circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

More than 1.5 million pilgrims from around the world have already amassed in and around Mecca for the Hajj, and the number is still growing as more pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined. Saudi authorities expected the number of pilgrims to exceed 2 million this year.

This year’s Hajj came against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, which began on October 7, when thousands of terrorists poured into southern Israel.

Palestinians in Gaza were not able to travel to Mecca for Hajj this year, as Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing since Israel extended its ground offensive to the strip’s southern city of Rafah last month.

Palestinian authorities said 4,200 pilgrims from the West Bank arrived in Mecca for Hajj, and Saudi authorities said 1,000 more from the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the war in Gaza also arrived to perform Hajj at the invitation of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The 1,000 invitees were already outside Gaza — mostly in Egypt — before the closure of the Rafah crossing.

This year’s Hajj also saw Syrian pilgrims traveling to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in more than a decade. The move was part of an ongoing thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and conflict-stricken Syria. Syrians in rebel-held areas used to cross the border into neighboring Turkey on their exhausting trip to Mecca for Hajj.

Pilgrims leave after offering prayers outside the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP/Rafiq Maqbool)

“This is the natural thing: Pilgrims go to Hajj directly from their home countries,” said Abdel-Aziz al-Ashqar, a Syrian coordinator of the group of pilgrims who left Damascus this year for Hajj.

The pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to make the five-day Hajj at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do it.

It is a moving spiritual experience for pilgrims who believe it absolves sins and brings them closer to God while uniting the world’s more than 2 billion Muslims. It’s also a chance to pray for peace in many conflict-stricken Arab and Muslim countries, including Yemen and Sudan, where more than a year of war between rival generals created the world’s largest displacement crisis.

For many Muslims, the Hajj is the only major journey that they make in their life. Some spend years saving up money and waiting for a permit to embark on the journey in their 50s and 60s after they have raised their children.

The rituals during the Hajj largely commemorate the Quran’s accounts of Prophet Ibrahim, his son Prophet Ismail and Ismail’s mother Hajar — or Abraham and Ismael as they are named in the Bible.

Male pilgrims wear an ihram, two unstitched sheets of white cloth that resemble a shroud, while women dress in conservative, loose-fitting clothing with headscarves, and forgo makeup and perfume. They have been doing the ritual circuit around the cube-shaped Kaaba, counter-clockwise in the seven-minaret Grand Mosque since arriving in Mecca over recent days.

Muslim worshipers pray around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on June 12, 2024, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

Saudi authorities have adopted security restrictions in and around Mecca, with checkpoints set up on roads leading to the city to prevent those who don’t have Hajj permits from reaching the holy sites.

Security authorities have arrested many people who attempted to take pilgrims to Mecca despite them not having Hajj permits, said Lt. Gen. Muhammad al-Bassami, head of the Hajj Security Committee. Most of them were expelled from the country, while travel agents faced jail for up to six months, according to the Interior Ministry.

On Friday, the pilgrims made their way to Mina, officially opening the Hajj. They then will move for a daylong vigil Saturday on Mount Arafat, a desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final speech, known as the Farewell Sermon. Healthy pilgrims make the trip on foot, others use bus or train.

Pilgrims leave after offering prayers outside the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, early Friday, June 14, 2024. (AP/Rafiq Maqbool)

The time of year when the Hajj takes place varies, given that Hajj is set for five days in the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

Most of the Hajj rituals are held outdoors with little if any shade. When it falls in the summer months, temperatures can soar to over 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). The Health Ministry has cautioned that temperatures in the holy sites could reach 48 Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). Many pilgrims carried umbrellas against the burning sun.

After Saturday’s worship in Arafat, pilgrims will travel a few kilometers (miles) to a site known as Muzdalifa to collect pebbles to use in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil back in Mina.

Pilgrims then return to Mina for three days, coinciding with the festive Eid al-Adha holiday, when financially able Muslims around the world slaughter livestock and distribute the meat to the poor. Afterward, they return to Mecca for the final circumambulation, known as Farewell Tawaf.

In recent years, the annual pilgrimage has returned to its monumental scale after three years of heavy restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, more than 1.8 million pilgrims performed Hajj, approaching the 2019 level when more than 2.4 million pilgrims participated in the pilgrimage.

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