MECCA: Hundreds of thousands of hajj pilgrims began streaming out of Mecca Thursday ahead of the highlight of the annual rites, which have attracted huge crowds despite the continuing pandemic and unforgiving heat, reports AFP.
Many worshippers made the journey on foot to Mina, seven kilometres (four miles) from Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, where they circled the imposing black Kaaba at the start of the rituals on Wednesday.
"I feel great. This is all to be closer to God," Tunisian pilgrim Khaled Bin Jomaa, 44, said as he entered the encampment on foot, carrying an umbrella and a prayer mat.
The crowds, capped at one million including 850,000 from abroad chosen by lottery, are the biggest at the hajj since 2019 after two Covid-hit years when only tens of thousands were allowed to take part.
All the worshippers are fully vaccinated and submitted negative PCR tests, but the rituals are taking place against the backdrop of a resurgence of Covid-19 in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to keep outbreaks in check.
Upon reaching Mina, pilgrims were handed small bags containing masks and sanitiser, and ambulances were parked at the many entrances.
Temperatures climbed to 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, and four hospitals and 26 health centres have been prepared at Mina to treat pilgrims who might fall ill.
On Friday comes the highlight of the hajj: ascending Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
Worshippers will pray and recite the Koran for several hours at the mountain and sleep nearby.
On Saturday, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil".
The hajj, usually one of the world's largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
Saudi state media reported that Mauritania's president and Indonesia's vice president were among the pilgrims landing in Jeddah on Thursday to perform the hajj.
In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the hajj which poses a considerable security challenge and has seen several disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people.
The rituals are being performed under strict security measures that include police checkpoints in parts of Mecca. In 1979, gunmen barricaded themselves inside the Grand Mosque in an assault that left 153 dead, according to the official toll.
The Commander of the Air Force Group participating in this hajj season, Colonel Pilot Khaled bin Abdullah Al-Mutairi, told state media Wednesday that military helicopters will be used "around the clock... to support the public security".
Overseas pilgrims, who were banned from the hajj in 2020 and 2021 to prevent Covid infections, are back in the mountainous region this year to fill its hotel rooms and visit its shops as business owners hope to recover huge losses.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal. Some 67 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The hajj ministry has said it is working on the highest levels of health precautions in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants. However, a requirement to wear masks has been largely ignored.