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A Muslim pilgrim carries his son as he circumambulates around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on July 5, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: One million pilgrims, including 850,000 from abroad, start the Hajj rituals officially on Wednesday, setting off the biggest annual pilgrimage since the pandemic.

Thousands of pilgrims started arriving in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Friday to perform the Hajj.

Many new arrivals had already begun performing the first ritual, which requires walking seven times around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque.

“When I first saw the Kaaba I felt something weird and started crying,” Egyptian pilgrim Mohammad Lotfi told AFP.

Security forces marched through a parade ground in Mecca on Sunday, while police forces held a mock demonstration of a pursuit and capture situation, and paramedics mimicked quick response times for air lifting to safety.

The pilgrimage is one of five pillars of Islam, which all able-bodied Muslims with the means are required to perform at least once.

In 2019, about 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which also include gathering at Mount Arafat and “stoning the devil” in Mina.

The following year, when the pandemic took hold, foreigners were barred and worshippers were restricted to just 10,000 to stop the Hajj from turning into a global super-spreader.

That figure rose to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021.

Pilgrims this year - only those younger than 65 are allowed - will participate under strict sanitary conditions.

More than 4,000 workers at Grand Mosque

The Hajj costs at least $5,000 per person. Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, official data showed the kingdom earned about $12 billion annually from the 2.6 million pilgrims that used to visit Mecca and Medina for the Hajj, and around 19 million visitors for the umrah. Umrah is another form of pilgrimage which can be carried out at any time of the year.

Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend the Hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.

Masks are no longer compulsory in most enclosed spaces in Saudi Arabia but they will be mandatory at the Grand Mosque, the holiest site in Islam. Pilgrims from abroad will have to submit a negative PCR test result.

The Grand Mosque will be “washed 10 times a day... by more than 4,000 male and female workers”, with more than 130,000 litres (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant used each time, authorities said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, 9,000 of them fatal, in a population of about 34 million.

Aside from Covid, another challenge is the scorching sun in one of the world’s hottest and driest regions, where temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.

But Iraqi pilgrim Ahmed Abdul-Hassan al-Fatlawi said the heat is the last thing he thinks of when in Mecca.

“I am 60 years old, so it’s normal if I get physically tired because of the hot weather, but I am in a state of serenity, and that’s all that matters to me,” he told AFP.