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Flags, Phones and Human Chains: Islam’s Pilgrims Seek the Way on Haj

Muslim worshippers walk in the courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo after Friday noon prayers in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
Muslim worshippers walk in the courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo after Friday noon prayers in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

(Reuters) – For the millions of Muslims set to start the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca on Tuesday, the challenge of reaching the city where Islam was born has paled in comparison with finding their way once they got here.

Islam’s holiest city doubles in size each year as pilgrims from across the world, speaking dozens of languages, throng its streets, battling heat and traffic and improvising techniques to locate friends, compatriots and sacred sites.

“Who did not get lost?” asked Hejar, one in a group of about 20 Algerians who draped their national flag over their shoulders to quickly identify each other among the uniform white towelling robe that all pilgrims must wear.

On Tuesday, the authorities opened the route to Mina, a huge tent city just to Mecca’s east where all the pilgrims must camp for the next three days as the haj reaches a climax with the ritual ascent of Mount Arafat, a night on the Muzdalifa plain and the stoning of the devil at Jamarat.

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