Enormous crowds circle Kaaba as Haj begins in Saudi heat


Huge crowds of robed Muslim pilgrims walked solemn circles around the Kaaba, the black cube at Makkah’s Grand Mosque, on Sunday as the biggest Haj pilgrimage in several years began in the heat of the Saudi summer.

Islam’s holiest site is expected to host more than two million worshippers from 160 countries during the annual rites that could break attendance records, with 1.6 million foreigners already there.

“This year, we will witness the largest Haj pilgrimage in history,” if things go according to plan, predicted an official with the Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah.

“The numbers will exceed 2.5 million pilgrims,” added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to communicate with the press.

The Haj began early on Sunday with the “tawaf” — the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the sizeable cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold trimmings that millions of Muslims pray towards every day.

“I am living the most beautiful days of my life,” said Abdel-Azim, a 65-year-old Egyptian, as he performed the ritual. “The dream has come true,” added the retiree, who had saved up for 20 years to pay the $6,000 fee to participate.

On Sunday night, pilgrims will start moving to Mina, about five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Haj’s climax at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon.