The Hajj: Millions of pilgrims flock to Saudi for one of the largest gatherings in the world

ITV News Correspondent Shehab Khan reports live from Makkah, where he joins millions of Muslims doing the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage and one of the five pillars of Islam

More than 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world have congregated in the city of Makkah to do the Hajj - estimated to be the largest one ever.

Every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage, which happens every year, at one point in their life if they’re physically and financially able to do so.

It is one of the five pillars of Islam and as such, one of the most significant things any Muslim will do in their lifetime. This year, I’m among the many who have done the journey, swapping the corridors of power in Westminster for Saudi Arabia for the next week and a half. I, like all the other male pilgrims, will be wearing the Ihram - two white pieces of cloth that are intended to demonstrate unity and equality. And I’ll be wearing it as I participate in a host of rituals, which span over several days. We spoke to some British pilgrims as they made their way over to Saudi Arabia.

They are among the select few to have been granted a visa to attend this year. With demand being so high, the Saudi government has limited places and there’s now a lottery system to get a visa.

The process is apparently designed to ensure those who have never been before are given priority.

Regardless there are reports the number of Brits who have been given a visa has fallen dramatically, with estimates suggesting they’re down from roughly 25,000 to 3,000. Children's surgeon Dr Basem Khalil, who we spoke to at Heathrow before he set off, said this was one of the "happiest days of his life".

"It's the peak, the ultimate of what you would like to do," says Dr Khalil

He said: "It's been 17 years since I did my last Hajj and it's been a rollercoaster of a time, I've been through a lot and it's time to have that spiritual fulfillment again and there is no better place on Earth to go to than to Mecca.

"It's probably one of the happiest days of my life, it's the peak, the ultimate of what you would like to do."

For most who do the journey, like me, it will be their first time doing the Hajj, but this is a Hajj of firsts.

It’s the first taking place at full capacity since the pandemic. It is also the first time female pilgrims have been allowed to participate in the Hajj without the need for a mehram - an accompanying male family member. It’s one of many attempts to modernise but there has also been huge investment from the Saudi authorities to modernise the system. Due to large numbers of people there have been incidents here in the past where people have died because of crushes. The last was in 2015 when approximately 2,000 people died.

An estimated three million Muslims have travelled to Saudi Arabia for Mecca. Credit: AP

But government minister Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, told ITV News that work has been going on across the Saudi government for a year and continues on to this day to make sure everything runs smoothly. “[We work] all year long to enhance, develop and to renovate the area and we fix everything including down to the furniture in the Mosque,” he said. He added: “We also clean and disinfect the area, make sure there is access to medical services and this year in particular we have huge air purifiers, which work automatically which are the first of its kind to be used in the world.” On the ground, having spoken to pilgrims, there is a sense of excitement as people from all over the world have a shared purpose while they’re here. People from 140 nationalities will be going through this experience and journey together regardless of their differences. It is one of the largest annual human gatherings that takes place on our planet and regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s no denying it is quite the spectacle.

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