The first group of pilgrims left for the Islamic sacred cities of Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia Thursday for the upcoming annual hajj, one of the pillars of Islam that is obligatory for every Muslim who can afford it.
The hajj brings together Muslims from around the globe every year in Saudi Arabia and is set to start in early September. Millions will flock to Mecca, where the Kaaba, a cube structure regarded as the holiest shrine in Islam, is located.
This year, about 79,000 Turkish nationals will be pilgrims after they complete the rituals of the hajj. Turkey's Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB) arranges the trips and offers guides for pilgrims, many of whom are first-timers.
The pilgrimage has a special meaning for the faithful in Muslim-majority Turkey. Some who do not describe themselves as devout Muslims, strive to travel to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at least once in their lifetime. A recent DİB survey found pilgrimage to be popular, especially among Muslims aged 65 and above, and a large percentage of the faithful interviewed for the survey plan to perform the pilgrimage at a later point in their lives.
A special ceremony was held at Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport to see off the pilgrims. DİB officials, including the Istanbul mufti, were among those reciting prayers as they saw off the pilgrims.
Hatice Yılmaz, one of the women going to hajj, told İhlas News Agency at Atatürk Airport that she had been waiting for nine years to become a pilgrim. Due to the sheer number of pilgrims every year, Saudi Arabia puts a quota for every country for pilgrims. Turkey organizes draws for pilgrims every year and some have to wait for years to be selected. "I thank God and hope God will grant this to everyone," Yılmaz said.