The annual Hajj pilgrimage began in Saudi Arabia on Saturday where almost 1.5 million Muslims from Asia, Africa and points in between are performing the ritual act, undaunted by the last year’s deadly stampede.
The numbers are down because of the absence of tens of thousands of Iranians over tensions between their countries. The 2015 stampede magnified those frictions.
After preliminary rituals this week in Makkah at the Grand Mosque, pilgrims moved on Saturday, many by bus, to Mina several kilometers east. In debilitating temperatures exceeding 40º C, some pilgrims walked under colored umbrellas.
Pilgrims ensued to Mount Arafat, several Km further, for the peak of the Hajj today (Sunday)
The first day of Hajj was traditionally the chance for pilgrims to let their animals drink and to stock up on water. Then they proceed to Mount Arafat, several kilometers further, for the peak of the Hajj on Sunday (today).
For the meantime, a Saudi newspaper testified that, it will be the first time in 35 years, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, will not deliver a sermon to the Arafat crowds due to health reasons.
Mina becomes the pilgrims’ base, where an expanse of solidly built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million people beneath bare mountains.
Preceding September 24 last year, Mina was the passage of the deadliest disaster in Hajj history, when the rush broke out as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual.
This time’s ‘Stoning of the Devil’ will start on Monday (tomorrow).
Although Riyadh stuck with a stampede death toll of 769, data from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher – at least 2,297.
Saudi Arabia announced an investigation but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.
Government facilities have been moved out of Mina to free up space, and roads in the Jamarat area expanded for facilitating Hajis to perform Hajj, Saudi newspapers stated.
Officials have been dispensing 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.