It is a scene that stirs hope - and relief - for Muslims around the world.
One million pilgrims from across the globe amassed on Thursday in the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia to perform the initial rites of the Hajj, marking the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual event - a key pillar of Islam.
The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Mohammad some 1,400 years ago. Pilgrims spend five days carrying out a set of rituals intended to bring them closer to God.
That includes praying around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam. At the center of the Grand Mosque's courtyard on Thursday, thousands of unmasked pilgrims circled the Kaaba.
The crowds moved counter-clockwise around the granite building in a blur, their hearts tilting toward the structure meant to symbolize the oneness of God in Islam. Wherever they are in the world, observant Muslims face the Kaaba to pray daily.
Authorities and pilgrims remained cautious even though Saudi Arabia lifted all coronavirus-related restrictions earlier this year.
Saudi authorities distributed bottles of water from the holy Zamzam well instead of allowing pilgrims to drink from cups at the mosque. Thousands of medical workers were on hand to assist those in need.
This year, the Hajj is open to just 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, tested negative for COVID-19 and are between 18 and 65 years old. Authorities estimate 85% have arrived from abroad.
While this year’s attendance is far below the pre-pandemic influx of 2.5 million pilgrims, it represents a significant step closer to normal after the Kingdom restricted the event to a small number of Muslim residents for the past two years.
Although no longer in the shadow of the pandemic, this Hajj is taking place amid Russia's war on Ukraine - a conflict that may be thousands of miles from the homes of many Muslims but has sent the prices of staple foods soaring and spread misery across the world.