Photos: One million Muslims start Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca

Pilgrims gathered for dawn prayers and performed the initial rites of the Hajj on Thursday in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, in the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the event – one of the five pillars of Islam.

This year’s Hajj is larger than the pared-down versions staged in 2020 and 2021, but is still smaller than those held before the pandemic.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual event.

The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey.

Pilgrims spend several days carrying out a series of rituals intended to bring them closer to God, walking the path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

That includes praying around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam.

At the centre of the Grand Mosque’s open courtyard on Wednesday, thousands of unmasked pilgrims circled the Kaaba.

They moved counter-clockwise seven times around the granite building, which is meant to symbolise the oneness of God in Islam.

This year’s Hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65 chosen from millions of applicants, mainly through an online lottery system.

Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia were required to submit a negative COVID-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.

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