MECCA Two million Muslims gather in Saudi Arabia this week for the hajj as the annual pilgrimage becomes increasingly hi-tech with apps to help the faithful navigate Islams holiest sites.
This year the hajj comes with the ultra-conservative kingdom witnessing an unprecedented pace of change, finally ending a ban on women driving while remaining firm in the face of any dissent.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj is expected to draw two million people from around the globe this year.
By Thursday, more than 1.6 million people had already arrived in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, which runs from Sunday to Friday.
Thousands could be seen arriving in Mecca, with groups from different countries wearing distinct colors to set them apart.
Muslim pilgrims walk outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabias holy city of Mecca on August 16, 2018, prior to the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)
Some pilgrims pushed their elderly relatives on wheelchairs while others stopped to call family members back home on video chat or buy ice cream as temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
For many, it is their first time away from home.
Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.
Many were visibly moved to be so close to Islams holiest site the Kaaba, a black masonry cube in the center of Meccas Grand Mosque.
I feel as light as a feather, said Senegalese Fame Diouf, who traveled from Amsterdam. Laughing, she recounted the story of how she couldnt stop crying near the Kaaba.
Pilgrims walk outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabias holy city of Mecca on August 16, 2018, prior to the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)
This was my dream from childhood, said Raja Amjad Hussein, who made the trip to Mecca from Pakistan.
I cant explain. I have no words, the 40-year-old told AFP.
For many Muslims this is the big, the biggest, dream of life, to see Kaaba and pray for yourself and the whole Muslim nation.
No matter their race or nationality, for every pilgrim hajj begins with ihram, the donning of an all-white outfit.
For men, this is a seamless tunic worn over baggy pants; for women, a loose dress with only the face and hands exposed.
Pilgrims then perform rituals around the Kaaba and on the Mount Arafat plain east of Mecca.
The hajj ends with Eid al-Adha, a three-day feast which starts with the stoning of the devil.
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