One million pilgrims converge on Mecca for largest hajj since pandemic

Prospective pilgrims from Muslim-majority countries angry as Saudi Arabia cuts quotas to keep to one million limit

One million Muslim pilgrims are converging on Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca for the largest hajj since the coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed access to one of Islam’s five pillars.

Pilgrims arrayed in simple white garments travel today to a vast tent camp at Mina to begin the sacred journey decreed as a pillar of Islam by the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago.

Chanting “Doubly at thy service oh God”, men, women and children from the world over travel by car, van, bus and train on the first stage of the 22km route followed by the Prophet and his party three years before his death in 632AD.

Before setting off for Mina, pilgrims circled the Ka’abah, the black velvet-shrouded cubic building at the heart of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Rituals will culminate on Friday with meditation and prayer during the “The Standing” at the plain of Arafat below the mount where the Prophet delivered his farewell sermon. On Saturday, pilgrims and the global Muslim community will celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep rather than his son at heaven’s command.

This year, Saudi Arabia has allowed one million — 850,000 from abroad — to perform the hajj, normally the world’s largest multinational, multi-ethnic religious event. Covid-19 curtailed numbers to 10,000 in 2020 and 60,000 in 2021; only residents of the kingdom were permitted.

In 2019, 2.5 million took part in the five-day rituals, which usually bring in about $8 billion (€7.85bn) a year for the kingdom.

To avoid Covid contagion, all pilgrims must be vaccinated, masks are required, and Mecca’s Grand Mosque will be disinfected 10 times a day. To ensure pilgrims can endure crowd crushes and sweltering heat, they must be under 65 years-old. Elderly and ailing folk who seek the blessing of dying during the hajj have been excluded.

Since Saudis overthrew 10 centuries of Hashemite rule of Mecca and Medina in 1924-1925, staging the pilgrimage is both a religious obligation and a reaffirmation of legitimacy for their king who has assumed the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”.

While the Saudis boast that the hajj has been held every year during their reign, the pilgrimage has not always been trouble-free. In 1979, insurgents trying to overthrow the monarchy attacked the Grand Mosque killing 153; in 1987 clashes between Shia Iranians and Saudi Sunnis left 400 dead, and, in 2015, a stampede killed 2,300 people.

For crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, a well-run hajj could mark an end to ostracism over accusations that he ordered the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The prince hopes to exit isolation when he meets US president Joe Biden during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh in mid-July.

However, chaos created by the new internet platform lottery for securing hajj visas and flight and accommodation bookings has caused widespread resentment among many western pilgrims who have paid $5,000-$10,000 each for promised luxury packages. They find themselves downgraded without compensation, with hotel rooms occupied by others, and visits cut from 21 to 14 days. Prospective pilgrims from Muslim-majority countries are angry over being excluded as country quotas have been cut by up to two-thirds to keep to the one million limit.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times