Hajj pilgrimage begins in Saudi Arabia, with 2 million expected after COVID measures lifted

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Some 2 million Muslim pilgrims officially began the annual Hajj pilgrimage on Monday, heading out of Mecca after circling Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, and converging on a sprawling camp of tents in the nearby desert for a day and night of prayer.

One of the world’s largest religious gatherings returned to full capacity this year for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began three years ago.

Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to perform the five-day Hajj at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able to do so.

For pilgrims, it is a deeply moving spiritual experience that absolves sins, brings them closer to God and unites more than 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. Some spend years saving money and waiting for a permit to undertake the journey.

Maintaining holy sites and hosting the annual Hajj is a major source of pride and legitimacy for the Saudi royal family, which captured Mecca in the 1920s. The pilgrimage has sometimes been marred by tragedy, such as in 2015, when more than 2,400 people died in a stampede and crushing of pilgrims.

As the coronavirus outbreak led to global lockdowns in 2020, Saudi authorities limited the Hajj to a few thousand citizens and local residents. The previous year, some 2.5 million Muslims had taken part.

Pilgrims begin by entering a state of spiritual purity called “ihram”. The men wear simple white terry clothes and the women forgo makeup and cover their hair. Pilgrims circle the black cube-shaped Kaaba seven times and walk between two hills. , all of which are surrounded by the Great Mosque of Mecca, the largest in the world.

Rituals during Hajj largely commemorate the Qur’anic accounts of Ibrahim, his son Ismail, and Ismail’s mother Hajar. The walk between the hills, for example, recreates Hajar’s search for water in the desert for Ismail. In Islamic tradition, Ibrahim was ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Ismail, only to have his hand stopped at the last moment. Muslims believe that Ibrahim and Ismail later built the Kaaba, which Muslims face during their daily prayers no matter where they are in the world.

In Christian and Jewish traditions, which refer to him as Abraham, the biblical patriarch is ordered to sacrifice his other son, Isaac.

Pilgrims have been making the ritual circuit around the Kaaba since arriving in Mecca in recent days. As the last performed on Monday, the pilgrims traveled on foot or by bus to Mina, where they will camp in one of the largest tent cities in the world. They will pray all day and all night before heading to Mount Arafat on Tuesday, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final sermon.

Pilgrims will then collect pebbles from a site known as Muzdalifa to use in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil at Mina. The last three days of Hajj coincide with the Eid al-Adha holiday, when Muslims around the world slaughter cattle and distribute the meat to the poor.

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