Muslims begin the first day of rites at Islam's holiest site as the Hajj pilgrimage reaches attendance numbers nearing pre-pandemic years.
One million pilgrims from across the globe have amassed in Saudi Arabia's Mecca to perform the initial rites of the Hajj, marking the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual event.
At the centre of the Grand Mosque's courtyard on Thursday, thousands of pilgrims circled the Kaaba.
A key pillar of Islam, Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
Pilgrims spend five days carrying out a set of rituals intended to bring them closer to God.
That includes praying around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam believed to have been constructed by Prophet Abraham.
The crowds, visibly thinner than usual, moved counter-clockwise around the granite building, all tilting toward the structure meant to symbolise the oneness of God in Islam. Wherever they are in the world, observant Muslims face the Kaaba to conduct their five daily prayers.
This year, Hajj is open to just 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, tested negative for Covid-19 and are between 18 and 65 years old. Authorities estimate 85 percent have arrived from abroad.
While this year’s attendance is far below the pre-pandemic number of 2.5 million pilgrims, it represents a significant step closer to normal after the kingdom restricted the event to a small number of Muslim residents for the past two years.
VIDEO: "It's like heaven".— AFP News Agency (@AFP) July 7, 2022
Muslim worshippers perform the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, on the first day of the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the Covid pandemic began. "As I saw the Kaaba, I felt like I was in heaven," says Egyptian pilgrim in Mecca pic.twitter.com/IjyPYGlsX7
Great equaliser and unifier
The Hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equaliser and unifier among Muslims. Pilgrims wear simple clothing: for men, it’s typical to wear a white draping garment, while women wear conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume to draw closer to God.
With many more people applying to perform Hajj each year than the kingdom can accommodate, the Saudi government controls the flow of visitors through annual quotas based on each nation's Muslim population.
Although the pandemic is far from over, with hundreds new infections a day in the kingdom, the government is glad of the influx.
The event is a critical source of religious and political legitimacy for Saudi Arabia's rulers as well as an important source of tourism in the country.