MECCA, Saudi Arabia - Hundreds of thousands of mostly maskless worshippers circled Islam's holiest site in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, on the first day of the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year's hajj in the city of Mecca, a big rise after two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to policies to stop the spread of infection.
At Mecca's Grand Mosque, pilgrims performed the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth that Muslims around the world turn towards to pray.
Authorities said last month that masks would be required at the site, but that has been largely ignored so far.
Many pilgrims held umbrellas to block the hot sun as the temperature climbed to 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit).
The Saudi health ministry has prepared 23 hospitals and 147 health centers in Mecca and Medina, the second-holiest city in Islam, to accommodate pilgrims, state media reported this week.
That includes allocating more than 1,000 beds for patients requiring intensive care and more than 200 specifically for heatstroke patients, while dispatching more than 25,000 health workers to respond to cases as they arise.
The hajj poses a considerable security challenge and has seen several disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people.
No incidents had been reported as of Wednesday afternoon.
"It's all going well so far. I have moved around a lot and saw rules are being respected," said Faten Abdel Moneim, a 65-year-old Egyptian mother of four.
"I hope it stays this way."
- Five days of rituals -
This year's hajj is larger than the pared-down versions staged in 2020 and 2021 but still smaller than in normal times.
In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual event -- a key pillar of Islam that able-bodied Muslims must undertake at least once in their lives.
But after that, the coronavirus outbreak forced a dramatic downsizing. Just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part in 2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.
The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to Mina, around five kilometres (three miles) away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.
Four hospitals and 26 health centres are ready to treat pilgrims in Mina, state media said, while the visitors will stay in air-conditioned white tents.
"It's our duty as Muslims to come here," said Iraqi teacher Sundus Said, 46. "A lot of people in Iraq want to go, but they can't all do it. I am here now and this is just great."
This year's hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65 chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system.
Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia were required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.
- 'It's just too hot' -
Those attempting to perform the hajj without a permit face fines of 10,000 Saudi riyals (around $2,600).
Policemen in the mountainous city have set up checkpoints and conducted foot patrols.
Some pilgrims have donned clothing featuring the names and flags of their countries. "Hajj 2020 -- Chad" was written on the back of the white robes of one group.
Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of political legitimacy for Saudi Arabia's rulers.
Costing at least $5,000 per person, the hajj is also a money-spinner for the world's biggest oil exporter, which is trying to diversify its economy.
In normal years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.
These days it represents a chance to showcase the kingdom's ongoing social transformation, despite persistent complaints about human rights abuses and limits on personal freedoms.
Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend the hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.
"Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can't wait for the rest," said 42-year-old Egyptian pilgrim Naima Mohsen, who came to the Grand Mosque unaccompanied.
"My only problem is the weather. It's just too hot."
© Agence France-Presse