One million fully vaccinated Muslims are set to take part in this year's Hajj pilgrimage, the largest number since the start of the pandemic.
The biggest Hajj pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic kicks off with hundreds of thousands of mostly maskless worshippers expected to circle Islam's holiest site in Saudi Arabia's Mecca.
This year's Hajj commences on Wednesday with one million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, allowed to participate – a major break from two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to the pandemic.
The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
On the first day of Hajj at Mecca's Grand Mosque, pilgrims will perform the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth.
Muslims believe the Kaaba was constructed by Prophet Abraham and all Muslims around the world turn towards it when conducting the five daily prayers.
On Tuesday afternoon, white-robed male worshippers and women in colourful abayas walked side by side on the white floors near the Kaaba.
"I just prayed for you," one pilgrim, wearing a green robe, said during a video call with relatives. "I love you mother, I love you all," she added, waving into her mobile phone screen as she continued walking around the Kaaba.
Five days of rituals
The remaining days following the first day's tawaf consist of Islamic prayers and rituals across religious sites in the area.
Before leaving Mecca, all pilgrims have to do one last tawaf to complete their Hajj.
This year's Hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65 chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system.
Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia were required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.
Hosting the Hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of political legitimacy for Saudi Arabia's rulers.
Costing at least $5,000 per person, it is also a big source of revenue for the world's biggest oil exporter, which is trying to diversify its economy.