These breathtaking pictures show how millions of pilgrims are arriving in Mecca for Islam's annual hajj pilgrimage which starts tomorrow, as Saudi authorities warned they will stop any disruptive protests over the conflict in Syria.
The Grand Mosque, the focal point of the Islamic faith, was already teeming with joyful pilgrims at dawn yesterday, wearing the simple white folds of cloth prescribed for hajj, many of them having slept on the white marble paving outside.
‘I feel proud to be here because it's a visual message that Muslims are united. People speaking in all kind of languages pray to the one God,’ said Fahmi Mohammed al-Nemr, 52, from Egypt.
Hajj must be performed at least once in their lifetime by all Muslims capable of making the expensive, difficult journey, a duty that applies equally to Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims at a time of tension between Islam's main sects. Saudi leaders have emphasised it is a strictly religious occasion and they are prepared to deal with any troublemaking.
‘If anything happens it will be brought under control,’ Interior Minister Prince Ahmed said on Saturday after attending a Mecca march-past where troops paraded water cannon, teargas launchers and even truck-mounted machine guns.
Last year nearly three million pilgrims performed the hajj. The Saudi authorities said there have so far been 1.7million arrivals from abroad and about 200,000 from inside Saudi Arabia. Mecca's merchants, famed across the Arab world, are already doing a thriving trade as pilgrims stock up on souvenirs such as prayer beads and mats, Korans, dates, gold and zamzam water, pumped from a holy well.
‘The first time I saw the Kaaba I cried with joy. I prayed for myself and all Muslims,’ said Nafisa Rangrez, 36, from Gujarat in India, who had waited five years for a hajj visa.
All Muslims must face towards the Kaaba, the huge black cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque, five times a day for prayer, making a visit to the sanctuary a powerful experience. Pilgrims must circle it seven times when they arrive in Mecca.
Tomorrow is the first official day of the pilgrimage, with Muslims following a set form of rites laid out by the Prophet and culminating on Friday with the Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, a holiday across the Islamic world.
‘I would love to live here for the rest of my life. There's no such place in the entire world. This is a blessed country,’ said Ziad Adam, 23, a theology student from Kenya.
Saudi Arabia's king is formally titled Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the ruling family has long based its claims to reign on its guardianship of Islam's birthplace. Over the past decade it has spent billions of dollars expanding the Grand Mosque and building new infrastructure to avert the stampedes and tent fires that marred past pilgrimages with hundreds of deaths. The last deadly stampede was in 2006, when 360 people were crushed to death.