A million Muslims attend the beginning of Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca

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One million pilgrims from across the globe amassed on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca to perform the initial rites of the hajj, marking the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the event — a key pillar of Islam.

The hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey.

Pilgrims spend several days carrying out a series of rituals intended to bring them closer to God, walking the path traversed by Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

That includes praying around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam.

At the centre of the Grand Mosque's open courtyard on Wednesday, thousands of unmasked pilgrims circled the Kaaba.

They moved counter-clockwise seven times around the granite building, their hearts tilting toward the structure meant to symbolize the oneness of God in Islam.

This year, the hajj is open to 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, tested negative for COVID-19 and are between 18 and 65 years old.

Authorities estimate that 85% of all pilgrims have arrived from abroad.

While this year's number is far below the pre-pandemic influx of some 2.5 million pilgrims, it represents a major step closer to normal after two years that saw the pilgrimage restricted to just a small number of Muslims already residing in Saudi Arabia.

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