Egyptians ecstatic about journey to Mecca
Cairo - Like hundreds of thousands of other Muslims at airports around the world, Egyptian pilgrims have been saying their farewells at Cairo airport before leaving for Saudi Arabia to perform the haj in the tradition, they believe, of the Prophet Mohammad and Abraham before him.
Every year tens of thousands of Egyptians apply for visas to travel to Mecca to join more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the world at the pilgrimage.
“When I was chosen, I couldn’t believe it,” said Afaf Hasan Rifai, who was selected by Egypt’s authorities to perform the haj to start early in September.
“I started crying and I prostrated to God,” she said, her beaming husband standing next to her outside the terminal late on August 26th.
Nearby a policeman pushed a wheelchair carrying an elderly woman with a cane into the terminal.
Every Muslim who can undertake the journey is expected to perform the pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime but it can also be performed on behalf of another follower of the faith who is unable to do so.
Muslims have travelled to Mecca for the haj since the seventh century, when they say that God ordained it in the Quran.
Last year, more than 2,200 pilgrims — among them 464 Iranians and 182 Egyptians — died in a stampede at the haj, according to tallies from foreign officials. The official death toll from the Saudi government was 760.
It was the deadliest stampede in haj history and fuelled historic tensions between conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia and its regional rival, Shia Iran.
Saudi authorities announced new security measures for the haj this year, including electronic bracelets and a reduced period for the stoning ritual during which the deaths took place.
Over the centuries, the ritual — seen as an elusive moment of Muslim unity gathering all nationalities and classes — has not been spared the vicissitudes of the region.
There was the time when the Qarmatians, a sanguinary sect that controlled present-day Bahrain in the tenth century, descended on Mecca to put an end to what they viewed as superstition.
They killed thousands of pilgrims and made off with the sacred Black Stone of the Kaaba, breaking it into several pieces before ransoming it to the Abbasid caliphate.
In 1979, apocalyptic jihadists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held pilgrims hostage before special forces flushed them out.
Many pilgrims, especially the elderly, have died amid the massive crowds while performing the rites.
Still, many Muslims still dream of going — even those who have already made repeated pilgrimages, such as 93-year-old Salem Ibrahim Rahmo.
“I’m happy as can be,” said the white-turbaned Rahmo as he waited outside the Cairo airport terminal. “To visit the Prophet (his tomb and mosque in Medina), this is the greatest happiness. And to visit the Kaaba. This is my third time.”
His son, Rahmo Mohamed Ibrahim, said “everyone” would seize the chance to perform the haj if allowed.
“Every person wishes to visit the houses of God and to perform the pilgrimage and fulfil his obligation,” said Ibrahim, 53.
The rituals, believed to date to the time of Abraham — whom Muslims say built the original Kaaba as the first house of worship — begins September 9th and lasts for six days.
Men will wear seamless white clothes and women modest Islamic garb and circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. They will walk between two neighbouring hills seven times, emulating Abraham’s wife Hajar’s search for water, then symbolically cast stones at the devil.
The cathartic ritual, which pilgrims believe cleanses them of sin, is “spiritual bliss”, said Ibrahim.
“There is nothing better than this,” he said.
Hamas announced that Egypt has opened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip for three days, allowing hundreds of Muslim faithful to travel for a yearly pilgrimage.
Hesham Edwan, the director of the Rafah crossing, said on August 30th that nearly 2,500 people were expected to leave in the coming days.
Rafah is Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. Egypt has kept Rafah largely sealed since 2013, when ties with Hamas worsened after the ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist president Muhammad Morsi. Cairo accuses the Islamic militant group, which rules Gaza, of supporting militants in the Sinai Peninsula, allegations denied by Hamas.