Two million plus Muslims begin the annual hajj on Friday as the Saudi hosts seek to deter politicisation of the pilgrimage against a backdrop of simmering Gulf tensions.
The hajj, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, is one of Islam’s five pillars and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
It consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
“All of the arms of state have been deployed (and) we are proud to serve as ‘God’s hosts’,” said security forces spokesman Bassam Attia.
In total some 2.5 million faithful, the majority from abroad, will undertake the pilgrimage this year, according to local media.
“More than 1.8 million visas were delivered online without the need for middlemen. It’s a success,” said hajj ministry official Hatim bin Hassan Qadi.
“We feel cleansed by achieving this pillar of Islam and meeting people from across the world. It’s marvellous,” said Mohamed Jaafar, a 40-year-old Egyptian pilgrim.
‘An indescribable feeling’
“It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand it,” said an Algerian in his fifties completing the pilgrimage for the first time.
“It’s a golden opportunity and moment,” said his female companion.
Mecca, built in a desert valley, is home to the Kaaba, a cube structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth.