Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS
Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS

Mecca, Saudi Arabia — More than 2-million Muslims from around the world began the hajj pilgrimage at Islam’s holiest sites on Wednesday, a religious duty and an epic multi-stage journey.

In 2017, pilgrims from Shiite Iran return to Mecca in Saudi Arabia after a hiatus following a diplomatic spat between the regional rivals and a deadly stampede in 2015. But with the Gulf mired in a major political crisis, thousands of faithful who would usually make the journey from Qatar have stayed away.

On the esplanade of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the excitement was palpable as crowds from all four corners of the world gathered for a pilgrimage that all able Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lives.

Tidjani Traore, a public service consultant from Benin, said he was on his 22nd pilgrimage at the age of 53. "Every time, there are new emotions," he said. "There are new innovations for organising and hosting the pilgrims. Now, for example, the tents are air-conditioned."

Wearing the simple garb of the pilgrim, the faithful waited at dawn with their suitcases for buses to take them to Mina, 5km to the east. There, hundreds of thousands will gather before setting off on Thursday at dawn to climb Mount Arafat, the pinnacle of the hajj.

But first they must perform a ritual walk around the Kaaba, a black masonry cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque.

AFP

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