A vendor sells prayer beads on Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, during the annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca September 30, 2014. Image Credit: REUTERS

Makkah: Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims began a mass movement out of Makkah towards the nearby Mina Valley in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, beginning the Haj.

One of the world’s largest annual gatherings, and a pillar of the Islamic faith, this year’s Haj comes with authorities striving to protect pilgrims from two deadly viruses, Ebola and the MERS coronavirus.

Authorities say close to 1.4 million believers have come from abroad to perform Haj, alongside pilgrims from Saudi Arabia.

“It is a beautiful feeling,” said Aziza Yousfy, 60, from Algeria, before leaving Makkah.

Seeing Mina and Mount Arafat “has always been a dream for me,” she said.

Sayed Tajamul Haq, 64, an Indian pilgrim walking with his wife, voiced hope that “God will accept our prayers for forgiveness and mercy”, during an experience he described with a smile as “fantastic”.

Pilgrims will move a few kilometres from Makkah to Mina.

Men wear a seamless two-piece white garment, symbolising a state of purity and emphasising their unity regardless of social status or nationality.

Women also generally wear white, exposing only their faces and hands.

The passage to Mina marks the official start of the Haj on the eighth day of the Muslim calendar month of Dhul Hijja.

In Mina, they will pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat for the climax of the pilgrimage rituals on Friday.