The world's largest annual pilgrimage, Hajj requires the faithful to repeat a set of rituals first performed by the Prophet Mohammed centuries ago.
The event is a deeply spiritual experience for Muslims, and one that every believer aspires to take part in at some point in their life, if they are able.
Those who are unable to perform the pilgrimage for financial or health reasons are exempt. If they can afford it, Muslims can have someone perform the Hajj on their behalf, with Sharia advising they fund someone who would otherwise be unable to attend.
For many pilgrims, the journey to Makkah is the first time they will leave their countries or board planes. More than half of those performing Hajj visit from low-income countries, and 18 per cent come from conflict-ridden states.
According to Sunnah, or the way of the Prophet, Hajj Al Tamattu is the most preferred method of performing the pilgrimage. Along with Hajj Al Qiran, it differs from Hajj Al Ifrad in that the latter entails performing only Hajj, while the other two require performing Umrah, or minor pilgrimage, before.
Hajj begins on the eighth day of Dhu Al Hijjah, which falls on August 19 this year. It will end on August 24. It requires a sequence of rituals, prayers and a certain state of body and mind to perform properly.
What's new for Hajj this year?
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced it will work with the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission to set up 16,000 communication towers and more than 3,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.
The towers will provide pilgrims with undisrupted 4G mobile internet to maintain contact with their families and make use of the ministry's online services.
The authorities also launched the "Smart Hajj" initiative, providing pilgrims with smartphone apps to help them through the pilgrimage.
The app Asefny allows users to send health reports through their phones and request medical care in emergencies. The app tracks a pilgrim’s location in order to provide them with services or assistance to those with special needs.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah also launched the new version of the Manasikana app meant to guide pilgrims through every step of Hajj, from signing up for the pilgrimage to their return home. Available in eight different languages, it provides information that includes prayer times and flight schedules, the weather forecast for Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah, emergency numbers, the location of the nearest emergency centre and currency exchange rates.
What are the steps for Hajj?
Muslims follow the actions of Prophet Mohammed when he performed his Hajj in 632 CE. Those accompanying the Prophet observed his every move and these steps are performed in the same sequence today.
Before beginning Hajj, pilgrims must enter what is known as a state of Ihram, whereby they prepare their bodies and mind for the rituals ahead. This requires them to recite an intention and adhere to a certain dress code. Men must wear garments without stitching and cannot cover their heads, while women can wear stitched garments but cannot cover their face.
After entering Ihram, pilgrims begin their Hajj from the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam as it holds the Masjid Al Haram, a structure in the middle of the Kaaba that Muslims believe was placed by prophet Ibrahim thousands of years ago.
As they approach the Kaabah, pilgrims must circumambulate in a counter-clockwise direction, meant to express the devotion of Muslims praying to one God.
They must then perform Sa'ey, whereby Muslims re-enact the journey by Hagar, the prophet Ibrahim's wife, as she went between two small hills in Makkah, Al Safa and Al Marwa, looking for water for her son Ismail. Muslims pace between the two points, in remembrance of the miracle whereby God caused a spring to well up from underneath an exhausted Hagar. It is today the Well of Zamzam.
Pilgrims then depart for Mina, five kilometres away, where they recite prayers and spend the night in the valley where prophet Ibrahim stoned the devil as he tried to lead him astray.
On the second day of Hajj, after the Fajr prayer in Mina, pilgrims make the journey to Mount Arafat, a 70-metre hill believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed gave his final sermon. Standing and praying on Mount Arafat is considered the peak of the pilgrimage.
Descending from Mount Arafat, pilgrims make their way to Muzdalifah, to the south of Mina, to pray and collect pebbles to perform the last steps of Hajj.
On the third day is Ramy Al Jamarat, a symbolic stoning of the devil takes place at three walls located in Mina.
From the fourth day, which is also Eid Al Adha, pilgrims will spend the three days of the festival stoning and praying. They end their Hajj with a ritual sacrifice of a sheep.
Tawaf Al Ifadha, whereby pilgrims go back to Makkah and circumambulate the Kaaba one final time, is the final step of Hajj.
The politics of Hajj
Some countries have made attempts in the past to politicise Hajj, despite the Saudi government’s effort to separate their role as the Custodians of the Holy Mosques from politics.
In 2016, Iran demanded that its citizens boycott the pilgrimage over an accident that happened in 2015 in which hundreds lost their lives. Tehran used the incident for political gains, attempting to criticise Saudi Arabia's management of the pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia has kept its doors open to Iranians who wish to perform the pilgrimage, as it has with Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have been embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar since last year. Despite that, Saudi Arabia is welcoming Qatari pilgrims into the country by providing them with a website through which they can apply for the Hajj visa.
A statement on the Hajj Media Service, the official website for all news on Hajj, said that preparations were in place to receive Qatari pilgrims. It said that Qataris can travel on all airlines except for Qatari Airlines, and that visas will be offered on arrival.
Last year, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, reopened the land border with Qatar and allocated seven flights of the Saudi national carrier to bring pilgrims from Doha, in a temporary lifting of a then weeks-long boycott of its Gulf neighbour.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since 2016, but Riyadh has allowed pilgrims from the Islamic Republic to perform the pilgrimage, providing them with visas and official support.
Qatar has claimed that the treatment of Iran has been more favourable than that of Qataris, a claim that Saudi Arabia has denied.
In 2017, almost 2,000 Qataris and approximately 80,000 Iranians performed Hajj.
In July, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia said that King Salman will be paying for the full pilgrimage for 1,500 Yemeni and Sudanese families related to soldiers killed in Yemen's war this coming Hajj season.
The Ministry of Interior is deploying tens of thousands of security personnel to Makkah and Medina to ensure the safety of the expected two million pilgrims.
Ahead of the Hajj, Saudi Arabia’s security forces hold the annual military parade in Makkah, with soldiers marching and performing elaborate exercises to display their ability to ensure the safety of the pilgrimage.
“The forces have commenced their duties in Makkah, holy places, and Madinah, in every port and road leading to Hajj areas. They are extremely proud and honoured to serve pilgrims as they perform their Hajj,” the Minister of Interior and Chairman of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
Here's a video from Hajj 2017:
How to stay healthy during Hajj
No cases of epidemics or quarantine-requiring diseases have been reported among pilgrims congregating in the weeks before Hajj, and the health situation so far is reassuring.
Every year, the Saudi Ministry of Health issues a list of vaccinations required of all pilgrims intending to perform Hajj, according to World Health Organisation standards.
This year, the ministry has asked for meningitis, yellow fever and polio vaccinations. Citizens from certain countries might have to take receive additional vaccines depending on the prevalent communicable diseases.
Last year, the ministry asked the elderly and those with weak immune systems to reschedule their Hajj due to fears over an outbreak of Mers, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
Outbreaks of cholera and the Ebola virus in different parts of the world have raised fears of an epidemic at Hajj, but authorities have taken every measure to avoid this.
Where to eat during Hajj
Over the centuries, Makkah has become a sprawling city with malls, restaurants, hospitals and other facilities catering to residents and the influx of visitors the city experiences throughout the year.
For millions of pilgrims, eating during Hajj can be a challenging prospect as some days of the pilgrimage do not allow for a trip back to the city. Food is made available in the camps in Mina, in tents set up to tend to pilgrims, but also throughout the city in Makkah.
The ministry sends out inspection teams to monitor food for hygiene and to ensure that there is enough.
The ministry also monitors prices to ensure that restaurants and grocery shops do not overcharge.
All tour agencies, through whom the bulk of pilgrims from abroad arrange their Hajj, provide all-inclusive packages with meals, transportation and accommodation.
Food is typically served in massive tents, either in Mina or around Mount Arafat, in buffet style. However, pilgrims are advised not to overeat as Hajj requires an intense amount of walking, praying and standing as they move from place to place.
How to handle Hajj logistics
Makkah becomes one of the most densely populated areas in the world during Hajj, with millions of people moving in unison to perform the rituals.
A total of 1,535 flights carrying pilgrims are expected this year, with the rest arriving overland and sea.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has employed 16,000 people to guide the pilgrims as they travel from Makkah to Mount Arafat, a 20-kilometre journey.
Infrastructure upgrades give pilgrims multiple travel options for the trip. Trains departing every 15 minutes will carry thousands of pilgrims, while cars and buses are also commonly used.
However, some pilgrims prefer to make the journey on foot in the traditional way. The three-hour walk in temperatures that reach the high 40s can be arduous and potentially dangerous. Congestion during peak hours can make the journey even longer. The ministry posts employees and healthcare professionals along the way to tend to the hundreds of thousands making the journey.
From policemen spraying cool water from backpack-mounted tanks to air-conditioned marble floors, Hajj officials attempt to make the summer heat of Makkah as bearable as possible.
Outdoor cooling equipment and sprinklers have also been installed along the most congested routes to try to bring the temperatures down.
Massive walkways and bridges have been built to create multiple lanes for those travelling by foot, each staffed with healthcare professionals and government employees handing out water and snacks.
Hajj Hackathon's first year
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah organised the inaugural Hajj Hackathon earlier this month to help it come up with technological solutions to some of the pilgrimage's most pressing issues.
The challenge of Hajj is to co-ordinate two million people visiting three sites and performing religious rituals at specific times over a span of a week.
The event offered cash prizes to the top three participants, amounting to two million Saudi riyals (Dh1.96m), to transform their ideas into application-based solutions.
An all-female team of Saudi and Yemeni computer programmers won the first place with “Turjuman", an instant translation app aimed at facilitating communication between pilgrims from all over the world.
The competition’s eight-member judging panel included Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.
Other ideas included "Hajj Wallet", which came in second place, winning 500,000 riyals. The app would allow pilgrims to pay through their phones for services during Hajj — thereby reducing cases of pickpocketing.
Noura Alabdulkareem, chief executive of the Social Development Bank, addressed the Hackathon gathering and revealed that the bank has created a 30 million-riyal funding arm to further the winning initiatives.