The first group of Turkish pilgrims left Istanbul on Friday to attend hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia. Under the sponsorship of the state-run Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB), some 200 people arrived at Istanbul Airport to attend a farewell ceremony for the pilgrims. As part of the ceremony, the Quran was recited and prayers were made at the airport with relatives and families of the pilgrims also present.
Some 11,500 people will travel for hajj this year from Istanbul, Gov. Ali Yerlikaya told reporters at the ceremony.
The annual hajj pilgrimage is a religious obligation for Muslims, who must make the journey at least once in their lifetime if financially and physically able. Considered the fifth pillar of the religion, the hajj is intended to demonstrate solidarity among Muslims and their submission to Allah.
"I am very happy to be able to go to the holy sites. I've waited nine years [to go to hajj]," said Emine Uyusuk, 80, one of the members of the group. "I went to the holy sites twice for umrah. When I return back here, they are always on my mind. When I open my eyes, I am always thinking of them," she said. Umrah refers to a voluntary minor pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina that Muslims can perform at any time of the year. Nermin Barlas, 55, another pilgrim is going for hajj with her husband. "I cannot describe my feelings. I am very excited and very happy," she said. "I am excited to have the opportunity to visit the tomb of our prophet, to see the Kaaba and Mount Arafat," she said, adding that this would be her first time in Mecca and Medina.
Using a wheelchair Aise Yılmaz, 80, is going to the holy sites together with her son Esat Yılmaz, 55, and other family members. "I've been waiting for this moment for nine years. When I applied for the hajj, I was healthy and could walk by myself. Now, I will perform hajj using a wheelchair. My son will help me," she said. "I will pray for everyone, all the Muslims and all the humanity without exception," Yılmaz noted. The pilgrims will stay in the holy sites for 45 days as part of DİB's program.
The hajj pilgrimage takes place every year from the eighth to the 12th day of Zulhijja, the final month of the Islamic calendar that will fall in the second week of August.