Muslim pilgrims in Mecca circled the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, and then converged on a vast tent camp in the nearby desert, officially opening the annual Hajj pilgrimage, returning to its maximum capacity for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, more than 1.8 million pilgrims from all over the world have already amassed in and around Mecca for the Hajj, and the number was still growing as more pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined, said a spokesman for the Saudi Hajj Ministry, Ayedh al-Ghweinim.

Authorities say they expect this year to approach pre-COVID levels of more than two million.

Egyptian businessman Yehya Al-Ghanam said he was at a loss for words to describe his feelings upon arriving at Mina, one of the biggest tent camps in the world outside Mecca, where pilgrims will stay for much of the Hajj.

“Tears will fall from my eyes out of joy and happiness,” he said, overwhelmed by the emotions surrounding his pilgrimage. “I do not sleep. I have not slept for 15 days, only an hour a day.”

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to make the five-day Hajj at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do it.

For pilgrims, it is a deeply moving spiritual experience that absolves sins, brings them closer to God and unites the world’s more than 1.8 billion Muslims. Some spend years saving money and waiting for a permit to embark on the journey.

The rituals during the Hajj largely commemorate the Quran’s accounts of Abrahim, his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hajar.

Pilgrims have been doing the ritual circuit around the Kaaba since arriving in Mecca over recent days. As the last ones performed it on Monday, the pilgrims made their way by foot or by bus to Mina.

In Mina, soldiers sprayed pilgrims with water to cool them down in the heat of the desert plain, where there is little respite from the blazing sun. The faithful set up in their tents, resting in the rows of cubicles and praying together to prepare for the coming rituals.

On Tuesday, pilgrims move to Mount Arafat, a desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final sermon. Afterwards, they collect pebbles from a site known as Muzdalifah to be used in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil back in Mina.

The final three days of the Hajj coincide with the festive Eid al-Adha holiday, when Muslims around the world slaughter livestock and distribute meat to the poor.

In 2019, more than 2.4 million pilgrims participated in the Hajj. In 2020, amid worldwide coronavirus lockdowns, Saudi Arabia limited the pilgrimage to a few thousand citizens and residents. Last year, just under 900,000 attended as Saudi Arabia allowed limited numbers of pilgrims from abroad.

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