As hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims walked in the footsteps of the prophets beneath a sweltering sun, contracted cleaners in lime-green jumpsuits held out matching plastic bags to collect their empty water bottles.
It takes tens of thousands of cleaners, security personnel, medics and others to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage possible for 1.8 million faithful from around the world. As the Hajj concludes on Friday, the workers will begin a massive, weeklong cleanup effort.
For the cleaners, who are migrant workers, it’s a much-needed source of income. But this year it was particularly trying, as temperatures regularly hovered around 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) during the five-day pilgrimage, most of which is held outdoors with little if any shade.
“This job is not easy,” said a 26-year-old trash collector as he took a quick break to splash water on his face before rushing back to his position as another wave of pilgrims approached. “The heat is too much.”
He was among six cleaners, all from Bangladesh, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. They said they are paid 600 Saudi riyals (about $160) a month. They work 12-hour shifts for a few weeks surrounding the Hajj, with no days off, before returning to other cleaning jobs around the kingdom.
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to undertake it at least once in their lives if they are able. This was the first time in three years it was held without coronavirus restrictions.
The Hajj concludes on Friday, as pilgrims circle the cube-shaped Kaaba for a final time and then depart from the holy city. Men often shave their heads after completing the ritual stoning of pillars representing the devil, and women cut a lock of hair as a sign of renewal.
Pilgrims insisted the journey was worth it despite the heat. For many Muslims, it is the highlight of their spiritual life, a journey that wipes away sin and brings them closer to God. Some spend years saving up money and awaiting a permit in order to go.
The Hajj is also a huge source of pride and legitimacy for the Saudi royal family, which serves as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and invests billions of dollars in organizing the annual pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings on earth.