MAKKAH: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from across the globe began the annual haj on Tuesday in one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world. In what for many will be the highlight of their spiritual lives, pilgrims began moving from Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah to nearby Mina for the start of the six-day rituals.

Almost two million people are expected to take part in this year’s pilgrimage. They will leave for Waqoof-e-Arafat today (Wednesday) which is the Rukn-e-Azam of Haj. The pilgrims will listen to haj sermon to be delivered by the grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia at Masjid-e-Nimra. The first day of the haj is known as Tarwiah Day, when pilgrims traditionally watered their animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, about 10 kilometres (six miles) southeast of Mina.

Pilgrims stay in specially-built fireproof tents in Mina, a city which only comes alive during haj season. At Mount Arafat they will pray and recite from the Quran. With the start of the haj, pilgrims enter ihram, a state of purity in which they must not quarrel, wear perfume, cut their nails, or trim their hair or beards.

During ihram, men wear a seamless two-piece shroud-like white garment, symbolising resurrection and emphasising unity regardless of social status or nationality. Women must wear loose dresses, generally also white, exposing only their faces and hands. Joyous pilgrims like 35-year-old Egyptian Walaa Ali had been gathering for days ahead of the event.

“It is a gift from God that He has chosen us to come here,” Ali said with tears in her eyes, as preachers nearby explained the history and rituals of the haj to men and women sitting side by side in Makkah. “I am so happy to be here,” she said. The haj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once in his or her life, who have means to do so.

About 100,000 police have been deployed to secure pilgrimage sites and manage the crowds, and authorities say they are on alert for possible attacks by extremists. Security forces have taken “measures to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting haj season to carry out acts of sabotage,” interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said. “We take all possibilities into consideration during haj. This includes the kingdom being targeted by terrorist organisations,” he told AFP. This year’s hajj also comes with Saudi Arabia at war, leading an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels since March.