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ReligionSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia: Pilgrims gather for Hajj amid sweltering heat

June 14, 2024

More than a million Muslims from around the world have amassed around the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage.

Muslim worshippers pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine
Some worshippers arrive way ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, at the start of JuneImage: Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP/Getty Images

More than 1.5 million people from across the globe gathered amid intense heat in and around the Saudi city of Mecca on Friday for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

The event takes place against the backdrop of war in Gaza, which has sparked fears of a wider regional war in the Middle East.

What's notable about this year's Hajj?

People living in the coastal Gaza Strip were unable to visit Mecca for the Hajj this year because of the closure of the Rafah crossing to Egypt in May.

That happened in May when Israel extended its ground offensive to Gaza's southernmost city.

Palestinian authorities said some 4,200 pilgrims from the occupied West Bank had arrived in Mecca for the event.

Meanwhile, Saudi authorities said 1,000 more family members of Palestinians killed or wounded in the war in Gaza also arrived to take part in the Hajj at the invitation of Saudi Arabia's King Salman. Those guests were understood to have been outside Gaza when the crossing was closed.

The gathering this year falls during the hot Saudi summer. Officials have forecast average highs of 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year, large numbers of heat-related illnesses were reported.

This year's Hajj also saw Syrian pilgrims arrive in Mecca with direct flights from Damascus for the first time in over a decade.

Flights resumed after a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, with Riyadh appointing its first ambassador to Syria since it severed ties in 2012 under the shadow of the Syrian Civil War.

More pilgrims already living in Saudi Arabia were also expected to arrive in Mecca.

What is the Hajj?

The Hajj is one of the world's largest religious gatherings, involving a series of rituals that take days to complete.

As one of the "five pillars of Islam,"  all Muslims with the means and health to participate are expected to do so at least once.

Initially, the pilgrims perform the "tawaf," circling seven times around the cube-shaped Kaaba of the Grand Mosque — Islam's holiest site.

The climax comes on Saturday with prayers on Mount Arafat, where Islam's Prophet Mohammed is said to have delivered his final sermon.

Nearly 2.5 million Muslims performed Hajj in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic stopped religious and other gatherings globally.

The Hajj last year was the first since 2020 to be held without COVID-19 restrictions.

rc/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)