MECCA, Saudi Arabia: At least 1.5 million Muslims from around the world came to Saudi Arabia on Thursday for the annual hajj pilgrimage but the Iranians absent. The pilgrims crowded into Mecca’s sprawling, air-conditioned Grand Mosque to walk around the Kaaba – which Muslims across the globe face while they pray. The first rite of hajj formally starts on Saturday in which pilgrims walk in circles around Kaaba in a procession that continues 24 hours a day. Pilgrims who cannot walk are pushed around the mosque in wheelchairs by workers. Regularly-spaced taps provide thirsty pilgrims with spring water and visitors can eat under large fast food signs at a commercial centre inside the complex – where they are also able to shop. But as soon as the loudspeakers sound the call to prayer, the shops are shuttered and the faithful line-up to worship. Outside at all the Grand Mosque’s entrances, Saudi police control the movement of pilgrims between green plastic barriers. Step out of the line and a policeman calls through a megaphone to order them back into place. At prayer time, access to the Kaaba is suspended and the walk around it is stopped to avoid overcrowding.