MORE than 1.5 million Muslims have gathered in the sprawling tent-city of Mina for the start of the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage that re-enacts the actions of the Prophet Muhammad from more than 1,400 years ago.
Worshippers from more than 150 countries began performing rituals at the Grand Mosque in Mecca early on Saturday, one of the holiest sites in Islam, before setting out en masse to Mina, about 8km away.
The more than 1.5 million pilgrims will spend the day in Mina before setting out at dawn on Sunday to Mount Arafat, a 14.4km journey from Mina, which was the scene of the Prophet Muhammad’s final sermon.
Last year, Mina was the scene of the worst disaster in Hajj history, when a stampede occurred as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual.
To address security concerns, pilgrims have been given electronic bracelets storing personal and medical information that will help authorities provide care and identify people; and nearly a thousand new surveillance cameras have been installed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque which will monitor crowd numbers.
“We don’t come here with fear in our hearts,” said Naouri Abdelkarim, aged 50, from Casablanca, Morocco.
Pilgrim Lawan Nasir, aged 45, from Nigeria, who lost a cousin in last year’s stampede, said: “The pains have not dulled a bit,” but stated that it would be “silly” to stay away.
In one of several safety measures implemented after the stampede, access to the Kaaba is suspended during prayers, and the walk around it is stopped to avoid overcrowding.
Security has also been reinforced around Islam’s holiest site, where officers in red berets and camouflage uniforms man green plastic barricades to control the crowd.
Pilgrims were told they needed to follow a strict set of rules to prevent another tragedy.
“They said not to stray from our group, not to linger when buses arrive and depart, and to properly respect the designated routes,” said Rasha Mohammed, aged 36, from Alexandria in Egypt.
Pilgrims are, this year, being issued with identification bracelets, following difficulties identifying the dead last year. Each bracelet carries a bar code which is readable by smartphone.
It holds data including the pilgrim’s identity, nationality, and place of lodging in Mecca, the vice secretary of the ministry of hajj and umrah, Issa Rawas, revealed.
As well as 1.5 million worshippers from across the world, around 300,000 Muslims from Saudi Arabia are expected to attend.
Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam and undertaking it is considered an obligation for Muslims at least once during their lives, if they can afford to do so.
Rich and poor alike come dressed in the same white garments.
Worshippers at the main weekly Friday prayers overflowed into surrounding streets, which have been cleared to allow access for hundreds of thousands of people.
Temperatures reached 43 Celsius as they marched, with many pilgrims seemed faint. They carried water and tried to help each other in the hot sun.