MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia, Aug 18, (Agencies): Hisham Mostafa briefly forgot the war in Syria and his financial worries as he looked upon Islam’s holiest sites for the first time, standing among hundreds of thousands of white-clad Muslims gathered in Makkah ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage.

“This is the first time I see the Grand Mosque and the Ka’aba. It is the best feeling of my life to be able to perform the Hajj,” said Mostafa, 50, as he looked at the cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims turn in prayer five times a day.

The accountant traveled to Saudi Arabia from Turkey where he has lived for five years since fleeing Aleppo in Syria. “War destroys everything … Life in Turkey is hard and I barely earn enough.” But he was able to join about 2 million Muslims, including 1.68 million from abroad, flooding Makkah’s narrow streets for the annual rite which starts on Sunday. Nayef Ahmed, 37, told Reuters that in order to afford the Hajj he had to sell a plot of land in Yemen, which is embroiled in a three-year proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“Because of the war the prices are very high. But being here I feel comfort and peace and I pray to God for the war to end.” Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites and organising a peaceful Hajj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.

The interior ministry has put in place measures to confront any security threat from militant attacks to political protests, but no specific threats have been detected, a spokesman said. “We will prevent any actions that are not part of the HaJj ritual and any act that may impact the safety of pilgrims or their ability to perform the rite,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki told Reuters. Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system. “I came for umrah (minor pilgrimage) in 2007 and today after 10 years of registering and waiting, I am here,” said Najwa, 59, from Tunisia. “I cannot describe the feeling. I cry every day.”

The Hajj itinerary retraces the route Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) took 14 centuries ago. Saudi Arabia has made use of technology to manage the flow of millions at the same place at the same time. This includes electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, that were introduced after a 2015 crush killed hundreds.

“There is a comprehensive electronic agenda for every pilgrim and we have provided many apps that offer guidance,” Minister of Haj and Umrah Mohammed Bintin told Reuters. “We have a fleet of more than 18,000 buses, all of them linked to a control system that tracks their path.” He said a high speed railway be tween Makkah and Madinah had been completed and was being now being tested.

Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil. The haj and yearround umrah generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts. Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and Hajj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.

The pilgrimage represents one of the five pillars of Islam and is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. In recent weeks, the faithful have arrived in Makkah from across the world, all chanting “Labayk Allahuma Labayk,” or “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.” The Hajj offers pilgrims an opportunity to feel closer to God amid the Muslim world’s many challenges, including the threat of extremists in the Mideast after the Islamic State group was beaten back in Iraq and Syria and the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. “My feeling is indescribable to perform the hajj,” said Imad Abdel- Raheem, an Egyptian pilgrim. “I also want to pray for all Muslim countries, for them to live free in all places, in Palestine and in Burma, in all places, in Afghanistan and in India.” Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki, the spokesman of the Saudi Interior Ministry, told journalists Saturday that over 2 million Muslims from abroad and inside the kingdom would be taking part in this year’s Hajj.

Men attending the Hajj dress in only terrycloth, seamless white garments meant to represent unity among Muslims and equality before God. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and nail polish to achieve a state of humility and spiritual purity. Since arriving, many have circled the cube-shaped Ka’aba in Makkah – Islam’s holiest site.

The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God in Islam. Observant Muslims around the world face toward the Kaaba during their five daily prayers. Muslims believe the Hajj retraces the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as well as those of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail – Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible. After prayers in Makkah, pilgrims will head to an area called Mount Arafat on Monday, where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his final sermon.

From there, pilgrims will head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three days.

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