Muslim pilgrims have begun arriving at the holiest sites in Islam ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, with some weeping with their hands outstretched for a fleeting touch of the Kaaba.

The cube-shaped shrine, at the center of Mecca's Grand Mosque, is the site the world's 1.6 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day.

Ahead of Saturday's start of the hajj pilgrimage, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, tens of thousands have come to the Kaaba to circle it, to reach out to its golden gate and to pray. To touch the Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God, offers the faithful a moment of physical contact with Islam's holiest site on a pilgrimage intended to erase past sins.

On Thursday, a young boy wearing white terrycloth robes similar to those of other men gripped his father's hand while walking past the Kaaba. Women from across the world, wearing loose-fitting clothes and forgoing makeup and perfume, joined the worshippers with their hair covered in respect.

Some sat in quiet reflection, with the other faithful passing by them in a swirl. Workers cleaned the white tile floor surrounding the Kaaba as Saudi security forces stood guard nearby. The young supported the old as they offered supplication.

Here is a selection of images by Associated Press photographer Nariman El-Mofty showing the faithful in Mecca ahead of the formal start of the hajj.

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