MECCA, Saudi Arabia, August 18, 2018 - Hisham Mostafa briefly forgot the war in Syria and his financial worries as he looked upon Islam's holiest sites for the first time, standing among hundreds of thousands of white-clad Muslims gathered in Mecca ahead of the haj pilgrimage.
"This is the first time I see the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba. It is the best feeling of my life to be able to perform the haj," said Mostafa, 50, as he looked at the cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims turn in prayer five times a day.
The accountant traveled to Saudi Arabia from Turkey where he has lived for five years since fleeing Aleppo in Syria. "War destroys everything ... Life in Turkey is hard and I barely earn enough."
But he was able to join about 2 million Muslims, including 1.68 million from abroad, flooding Mecca's narrow streets for the annual rite which starts on Sunday.
Nayef Ahmed, 37, told Reuters that in order to afford the haj he had to sell a plot of land in Yemen, which is embroiled in a three-year proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"Because of the war the prices are very high. But being here I feel comfort and peace and I pray to God for the war to end."
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites and organising a peaceful haj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.
The interior ministry has put in place measures to confront any security threat from militant attacks to political protests, but no specific threats have been detected, a spokesman said.
"We will prevent any actions that are not part of the haj ritual and any act that may impact the safety of pilgrims or their ability to perform the rite," Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki told Reuters.
Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the haj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system.
"I came for umrah (minor pilgrimage) in 2007 and today after 10 years of registering and waiting, I am here," said Najwa, 59, from Tunisia. "I cannot describe the feeling. I cry every day."
The haj itinerary retraces the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago. Saudi Arabia has made use of technology to manage the flow of millions at the same place at the same time.
This includes electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, that were introduced after a 2015 crush killed hundreds.
"There is a comprehensive electronic agenda for every pilgrim and we have provided many apps that offer guidance," Minister of Haj and Umrah Mohammed Bintin told Reuters.
"We have a fleet of more than 18,000 buses, all of them linked to a control system that tracks their path."
He said a high speed railway between Mecca and Medina had been completed and was being now being tested.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom's economy away from oil. The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers' lodging, transport, fees and gifts.
Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.
CAIRO, August 18, 2018 (MENA) – Neither infectious cases nor epidemic diseases were detected among the Egyptian pilgrims so far, Health Ministry’s spokesman Khaled Megahed said Saturday.
The Health Ministry’s prevention mission has been raising awareness among the pilgrims on the prevention measures should be taken to avoid catching any contagious diseases, Megahed said.
The death toll among the pilgrims hit 17 so far, he added.
MECCA, August 17, 2018 (MENA) - Preparations for Egyptian pilgrims to start Hajj rituals by flocking to Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat have been completed, Executive Director of Egypt’s Hajj Delegation General Amr Lotfi said on Friday.
Lotfi told MENA that pilgrims will start to converge on Mount Arafat on Sunday, adding that 50 buses have been allocated to transport elderly pilgrims.
He urged pilgrims to follow the instructions of Saudi security personnel and authorities concerned while carrying out Hajj rituals.
CAIRO, August 15, 2018 (MENA) - The Health Ministry announced on Wednesday the death of a 75-year-old Egyptian pilgrim, taking the number of Egyptian pilgrims who died in Saudi Arabia to 15 so far.
The deceased woman, identified as Atiyat Mohamed Saeed Ahmed, from the New Valley Governorate, Upper Egypt, died as a result of a sharp drop in blood circulation, the ministry's spokesman, Khaled Megahed, said in a statement.
JEDDAH, August 15, 2018 (MENA) - Egypt's Consul General in Jeddah Hazem Ramadan said he cherished police martyrs for offering great sacrifices to fight terrorism and maintain security nationwide.
He made the remarks on the fringe of a reception held by the consulate to receive pilgrims of the families of police martyrs who arrived in Jeddah early Wednesday.
In statements to MENA, he lauded the role of state bodies, especially the Interior Ministry, to help martyrs' families perform pilgrimage.
He also extolled the Saudi authorities for sparing no efforts to ease measures for Egyptian pilgrims.
CAIRO, August 11, 2018 (MENA) – Egyptian Foreign Ministry urged the pilgrims not to have medicines deemed illegal in Saudi Arabia during their travel there.
Drugs, such as Tramadol, are forbidden in Saudi Arabia and could bring its holders accountable before the justice.
If such drugs are necessary, the patients should head to the Egyptian Health Ministry’s medical mission to have their doses, and preferably to have their prescriptions with them, deputy foreign minister for consular affairs Khaled Yousry said.