Huge crowds of pilgrims throng the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, as the biggest hajj in years gets under way in the searing Saudi Arabian heat

Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - Vast crowds of robed Muslim pilgrims walked solemn circles around the Kaaba, the black cube at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, on Sunday as the biggest hajj pilgrimage in several years began in the heat of the Saudi summer.

Islam’s holiest site is expected to host more than two million worshippers from 160 countries during the annual rites that could break attendance records, with 1.6 million foreigners already there by late Friday.

“This year, we will witness the largest hajj pilgrimage in history,” if things go according to plan, predicted an official with the Saudi ministry of hajj and umrah.

“The numbers will exceed 2.5 million pilgrims,” added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak with the press.

The hajj began early on Sunday with the “tawaf” -– the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold trimmings that millions of Muslims pray towards every day.

“I am living the most beautiful days of my life,” said Abdel-Azim, a 65-year-old Egyptian, as he performed the ritual. “The dream has come true,” added the retiree, who had saved up for 20 years to pay the $6,000 fee to take part.

Graphic explaining the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken at least once by all Muslims with the means.

A series of rites are completed over four days in Mecca and its surroundings in the west of oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday night, pilgrims will start moving to Mina, about five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the hajj’s climax at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon.

Mina, the world’s largest tent city, readied to receive the influx of pilgrims on Sunday, with food supplies brought in and security forces deployed around the area.

- ‘Great blessing’ -

Outside the Grand Mosque, thousands prayed on colourful carpets that adorned the pavement, with male pilgrims wearing simple white robes. The area was dotted with ambulances, mobile clinics and fire trucks.

Male pilgrims wear a simple white robe exposing one shoulder

The hajj poses a considerable security challenge and has seen several disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people.

There have been no major incidents since, and catastrophe was the last thing on pilgrims’ minds.

“I cannot describe my feelings,” said 25-year-old Indonesian student Yusuf Burhan. “This is a great blessing. I never imagined that I would perform the hajj this year.”

This year’s summer timing for the hajj, which follows the lunar calendar, will test the endurance of worshippers during the mostly outdoor ritual.

Carrying white umbrellas to shield themselves from the scorching sun, policemen in the mountainous city have conducted foot patrols and set up checkpoints to inspect hajj permits.

Others splashed water on pilgrims as temperatures climbed towards 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Thousands of paramedics were on standby inside the Grand Mosque. Saudi authorities said more than 32,000 health workers will be on hand to treat cases of heatstroke, dehydration and exhaustion.

- ‘Not a single vacant bed’ -

The hajj, with its hefty fees, makes billions of dollars a year for Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, which is trying to diversify its economy beyond fossil fuels.

Pilgrims rest in the street after their exertions in the searing Saudi Arabian heat

This year’s will be the biggest since 2019, before the Covid pandemic, when about 2.5 million people took part.

Only 10,000 were allowed in 2020, at the height of the global outbreak, rising to nearly 59,000 in 2021.

Last year’s cap of one million has been removed.

Saudi businessman Samir Al-Zafni said all his hotels in Mecca and Madinah are at full capacity until the first week of July.

“This year there is not a single vacant bed in our group of 67 hotels,” he told AFP.

The hajj also demonstrates social reforms in the deeply conservative country.

This year’s pilgrimage will be the biggest since Saudi Arabia scrapped rules in 2021 that banned women who weren’t accompanied by a male relative.

Leaving the Grand Mosque after evening prayers on Friday, Ramot Ali from Niger struggled to describe the feeling of performing hajj for the first time, saying simply that “I am very happy”.