MOUNT ARAFAT â€” In his tent in the desert outside the Holy City of Mecca, Suleiman Ibrahim still couldn’t believe his luck. His wife, sitting nearby, broke down in tears of joy Thursday as he recounted the day they learned they would be performing Hajj.
“The whole family started singing and congratulating me,” said Ibrahim, a furniture maker from the southern Egyptian city of Sohag who was one of tens of thousands of Egyptians picked to perform the pilgrimage through a government lottery.
“Hamdiya cried then too,” the 45-year-old said, nodding to his wife.
Ibrahim was among nearly three million pilgrims from around the world who massed in tent cities on the outskirts of Mecca on Thursday for the start of the annual Hajj. For many, it is a once in a lifetime chance to cleanse their sins in one of the most important pillars of Islam. This year’s Hajj takes place amid increasing worries across the Muslim world â€” over the bloodshed in Iraq, violence in the Palestinian territories and a new war in Somalia. Amid the crises, tensions have increased between the two main sects of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, who come together in the five days of Hajj centred around Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad.
“We will not allow sectarian tensions from any party during the Hajj season,” Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister Prince Nayef Ben Abdulaziz told reporters ahead of the rituals.
“The pilgrimage is not a place for raising political banners … or slogans that divide Muslims, whom God has ordered to be unified,” Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Salih Ben Abdulaziz told pilgrims Thursday.
But for most pilgrims the top concern Thursday was not politics, but faith.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of thousands opened their pilgrimage in Mecca by circling Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba that Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.
“For us it is a vacation away from work and daily life to renew yourself spiritually,” said Ahmed Karkoutly, an American doctor from Brownsville, Texas. “You feel you are part of a universe fulfilling God’s will. It’s a cosmic motion, orbiting the Kaaba.” Massive crowds of pilgrims packed the streets surrounding the Kaaba, some prostrating in prayer, others diving into the traditional outdoor markets to buy perfumes, fabrics, prayer beads and other souvenirs. In gleaming shopping malls overlooking the Kaaba, pilgrims checked out the goods at stores like the Body Shop or lined up at a Cinnabon.
The crowds then streamed into the tent cities outside the city, dressed in seamless white robes symbolising the equality of mankind under God and chanting, “Labbeik allahum labbeik”. The heartier ones walked, carrying food and water and bags. Others packed into buses and minibuses, some riding on the roof alongside the baggage, jamming the highways.
Most pilgrims went to Mina, a region in a desert valley 13-kilometre outside Mecca. But tens of thousands of others went directly to Mount Arafat, where all the pilgrims will gather Friday for the first major part of the pilgrimage.
Much of the day was spent settling into tents â€” with each country getting a section of the sprawling temporary city.
“I’ve been hoping my whole life to be able to make this journey. Four times I didn’t make the lottery, but this time God smiled on me,” Ibrahim said, sitting on a foam mattress among his suitcases at Mount Arafat.
In his tent, three of his fellow Egyptians debated the proper way to perform the complicated rituals. “Ask Sheikh Hassan, he’ll know,” one of them said, and another quickly called the cleric travelling with their group on his mobile.
Nearby, pilgrims climbed a rocky hill on the edge of the tent city and prayed at the top. A group of Indonesian women helped each other clamber up the rocks. A Syrian woman wept as she held up her hands, praying for an ill relative, while a crowd of Libyans chanted: “We have sinned, Lord. You are our heart, keep us from sin.” Saudi authorities estimate nearly three million pilgrims are attending this year’s Hajj. More than 1.6 million come from abroad. The rest are Saudis or foreigners resident in the kingdom.
More than 30,000 police and other security forces have fanned out around the holy sites to help smooth the pedestrian traffic and avoid the deadly stampedes that have marred previous pilgrimages.
More than 360 people were killed during last year’s Hajj in a stampede at Mina during the stoning of the devil. The rush began when some pilgrims stumbled over luggage.
Saudi Arabia has spent more than $1 billion during the past year to renovate the stoning site, where the massive crowds hurl stones at three stone walls symbolising the devil.
After last year’s stampede, the huge platform on which pilgrims stood to throw the stones was torn down and replaced by one with more exits and entrances. In the coming years, the complex will be expanded to offer multiple stories for the stoning.
On Friday, pilgrims will spend the day and night in prayer and meditation at Mount Arafat, the site where the Prophet Mohammad gave his final sermon in 632. They then return to Mina for the stoning.