MECCA, Saudi Arabia - Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have poured into the holy city of Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage as Saudi Arabia issued a stern warning against politicising the world's largest annual gathering.
People dressed in ihram, a two-piece seamless garment of white cloth, filled the area around the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is witnessing massive construction work.
Just two days before the official start of the hajj, around one million faithful performed Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque as the cleric who officiated called for a peaceful and quiet hajj.
Sheikh Saleh bin Mohammed al-Taleb also called on Muslims to unite and end disputes.
Authorities stepped up preparations as police closed most entrances to the Grand Mosque to vehicles, turning traffic in the area around the site into a menacing experience.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is mandatory once in a lifetime for all Muslims provided they are physically fit and financially capable.
"I am very excited and extremely happy. I feel I am a very lucky person that I am performing the hajj," said Hamza Suleiman, a 56-year-old civil servant from Malaysia.
"I registered for the hajj 10 years ago and my turn came this year. I really want to come here every year," he told AFP in the Grand Mosque courtyard.
Egyptian businessman Ahmad al-Bahrawi, who is performing the hajj for the sixth time, accompanied by his wife, said "it's an entirely different feeling that cannot be described when I enter the Grand Mosque and look at the Kaaba."
Due to the scare from the MERS coronavirus, which has already killed 51 in Saudi Arabia, and high pollution from vehicles emissions, some pilgrims and security men wore face masks and also covered their heads to protect themselves from the scorching heat.
Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabaia was quoted in the local media Thursday as saying that no MERS case has been discovered among pilgrims.