MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia: From Asia, Africa and points in between, nearly 1.5 million Muslims began the annual Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to Islam’s holiest sites on Saturday, undeterred by last year’s deadly stampede. After preliminary rituals this week in Makkah at the Grand Mosque, pilgrims moved on Saturday, many by bus, to Mina several kilometres east.
In debilitating temperatures exceeding 40C, some pilgrims walked under coloured parasols. They are following in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who performed the same rituals about 1,400 years ago. “It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand. This is my sixth Haj and I still cannot express how happy I am to be in Makkah,” said Hassan Mohammed, 60, from Egypt. Then they proceed to Mount Arafat, several kilometres further, for peak of the Haj on Sunday.
Mina becomes the pilgrims’ base, where an expanse of solidly built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million people beneath bare mountains.
Last September 24, Mina was the scene of the deadliest disaster in Haj history, when a stampede broke out as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual. This year’s “Stoning of the Devil” will start on Monday.
Officials have been issuing pilgrims with bracelets that digitally store their personal data, after some foreign officials expressed concern about difficulties in identifying the stampede dead. Authorities aim to give bracelets to each of the 1.3 million faithful from abroad, who are expected to be joined by more than 100,000 Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia. There has been no figure for the number of bracelets distributed so far.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki spoke of “great efforts being exerted by the kingdom, not only in maintaining the security and safety of the pilgrims, but in facilitating performance” of the rites in comfort. Pilgrims appeared satisfied on Saturday. “Everything is well organised,” said Nasser Benfitah, 54, from Morocco.