ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Muslims began the annual haj pilgrimage on Wednesday, donning traditional white garments and heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca in an itinerary retracing the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.
All told, more than 1.75 million worshippers from 168 countries arrived in Saudi Arabia this week for the five-day ritual, which is a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
Some prayed at the Grand Mosque before heading to the Mina area or toward Mount Arafat, where the Prophet is believed to have delivered his final sermon to followers.
(For a graphic on the Haj journey, click: here)
They walked or took buses, with traffic police using loudspeakers to try to direct crowds speaking a medley of languages. They were dressed in simple white robes, marking a state of ihram, or ritual purity.
Moroccan pilgrim Rida al-Belaqili, waiting to board a bus to Arafat, struggled to find words to describe his feelings.
“We are meeting people from every country and every nationality. There is a sort of unity,” he said. “I hope this will recharge Muslims’ faith and spirituality. I ask God to grant me and all Muslims forgiveness.”
He is performing haj with his wife, Latifa al-Omari, for the second time.
“Haj is not a hardship. This joy and happiness makes you forget everything,” she said.
All the pilgrims will arrive by Thursday morning at Mount Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca, for a day-long vigil to atone for their sins and seek God’s mercy.
The Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, starts on Friday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.
Demba Ba, a Senegalese footballer who used to play for Chelsea, said for him performing haj was “the most important thing”.
“I wish for peace and tolerance from everybody — and love. Because out of peace and tolerance and love we can achieve great things,” he said. “I hope to go back home with the forgiveness of Allah the almighty. That’s what we are here for.”
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites — Mecca and Medina — and organizing the pilgrimage.
The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen deadly stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond.
Officials say they have taken all necessary precautions this year, with more than 100,000 members of the security forces and 30,000 health workers on hand to maintain safety and provide first aid.
A crush in 2015 killed nearly 800 pilgrims, according to Riyadh, although counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians.
Reuters saw a group of tents for Iranian pilgrims in Arafat, with nearly 90,000 expected to attend this year after Tehran boycotted last year amid a diplomatic rift with Riyadh. Both countries are vying for power and influence in the region.
Saudi officials say over 1,500 Qatari pilgrims are also participating following speculation that a regional dispute which has isolated Qatar would block them.
Violence in the Middle East, including wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and other global hotspots are likely to be on the minds of many, though Saudi authorities have asked worshippers to put aside politics during the haj.
Albanian pilgrim Baqi Mostafa, 28, was boarding a bus to Arafat as the outdoor temperature approached 40 degrees Celsius (104°F).
“I ask God to improve the conditions of Muslims everywhere, especially Syria and Burma,” he said. “I ask God to relieve their troubles.”
Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams/Jeremy Gaunt