More than two million Muslims begin the annual Haj on Friday. “All of the arms of state have been deployed (and) we are proud to serve as ‘God’s hosts’,” said security forces spokesman Bassam Attia.
In total some 2.5 million faithful, the majority from abroad, will undertake the pilgrimage this year.
“More than 1.8 million visas were delivered online without the need for middlemen. It’s a success,” said Haj ministry official Hatim Bin Hassan Qadi.
“We feel cleansed by achieving this pillar of Islam and meeting people from across the world. It’s marvelous,” said Mohamed Jaafar, a 40-year-old Egyptian pilgrim.
“It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand it,” said an Algerian in his fifties completing the pilgrimage for the first time.
“It’s a golden opportunity and moment,” said his female companion.
During the pilgrimage separate streams of men and women, grouped by nationality, will travel to Mina on foot or in buses provided by the authorities.
A district of Makkah, Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
A total of “350,000 air-conditioned tents have been pitched,” said a Saudi official.
Worshipers will climb Mount Arafat, also known as the “Mount of Mercy”, for hours of prayers and recitals of the Holy Qur’an.
After descending, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.
That marks the beginning of Eid Al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, marked on Sunday.
Pilgrims then return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final “tawaf” or walk around the Kaaba.
The scale of the pilgrimage presents vast security and logistical challenges, with tens of thousands of safety officers deployed.