In his tent in the desert outside the holy city of Mecca, Suleiman Ibrahim still couldn't believe his luck. His wife, sitting nearby, broke down in tears of joy as he recounted the day they learned they would be performing Islam's hajj pilgrimage.
"The whole family started singing and congratulating me," said Ibrahim, a furniture maker from the southern Egyptian city of Sohag who was one of tens of thousands of Egyptian Muslims picked to perform the pilgrimage through a government lottery.
"Hamdiya cried then too," the 45-year-old said on Thursday, nodding to his wife.
Ibrahim was among nearly 3 million Muslims from around the world who massed in tent cities on the outskirts of Mecca on Thursday for the start of the annual hajj. For many, it is a once in a lifetime chance to cleanse their sins in one of the most important rites of Islam.
This year's hajj takes place amid increasing worries across the Islamic world -- over the bloodshed in Iraq, violence in the Palestinian territories and a new war in Somalia. Amid the crises, tensions have increased between the two main sects of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, who come together in the five days of hajj rituals centered around Mecca, birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
"We will not allow sectarian tensions from any party during the hajj season," Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz told reporters ahead of the rituals.
"The pilgrimage is not a place for raising political banners ... or slogans that divide Muslims, whom God has ordered to be unified," Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Sheik Salih bin Abdulaziz told pilgrims on Thursday.
But for most pilgrims the top concern in Thursday was not politics, but faith.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of thousands opened their pilgrimage in Mecca by circling Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, the black cubic stone that Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.
"For us it is a vacation away from work and daily life to renew yourself spiritually," said Ahmed Karkoutly, a US doctor. "You feel you are part of a universe fulfilling God's will. It's a cosmic motion, orbiting the Kaaba."
Massive crowds of pilgrims packed the streets surrounding the Kaaba, some prostrating in prayer, others diving into the traditional outdoor markets to buy perfumes, fabrics, prayer beads and other souvenirs. In gleaming shopping malls overlooking the Kaaba, pilgrims checked out the goods at stores like the Body Shop or lined up at a Cinnabon.
The crowds then streamed into the tent cities outside the city, dressed in seamless white robes symbolizing the equality of mankind under God and chanting labbeik, allahum, labbeik -- Arabic for "I am here, Lord."
The heartier ones walked, carrying food and water and bags. Others packed into buses and minibuses, some riding on the roof alongside the baggage, jamming the highways in the hajj's annual epic of traffic control.
Most pilgrims went to Mina, a region in a desert valley 13km outside Mecca. But tens of thousands of others went directly to Mount Arafat, where all the pilgrims were to gather yesterday for the first major ritual of the pilgrimage.
Saudi authorities estimate nearly 3 million pilgrims will attending this year's hajj. More than 1.6 million come from abroad. The rest are Saudis or foreigners resident in the kingdom.
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