Over 2 million Muslim pilgrims started moving at sunrise yesterday toward Mount Arafat to perform the central rite of hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
In the aftermath of the death of 76 people on Thursday in the collapse of an aging hostel in the heart of Mecca, a senior Saudi official said the kingdom has prepared itself to deal with major potential emergencies during the hajj including fires, stampedes, torrential rain, food poisoning, terror acts and even chemical attacks.
Although some pilgrims, especially Egyptians, had arrived in Arafat the day before, the great majority flocked from the valley of Mina, to the north, where they had spent the night huddled under tents or camped out on the streets with their mats and blankets.
Tracing a journey made by the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago, pilgrims were to gather yesterday for an emotional assembly in Arafat, a small plain about 250m above sea level surrounded by mountains on all sides.
They will pray for mercy and forgiveness at the scene of the prophet's last sermon and in a place where some believe Adam and Eve reunited after they were banished by God from paradise, according to the Bible.
The rite of wukuf, or standing, before sunset on Arafat is the high point of the hajj and without which it would be considered incomplete.
More than 1.55 million foreign pilgrims of 177 nationalities are taking part, up 1.2 percent from the previous pilgrimage, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz said.
"This does not include Saudis, foreigners living in Saudi and pilgrims coming on their own outside the tours," Interior Ministry Spokesman Major General Mansur al-Turki said, suggesting an estimate of 2.5 million may be close.
He said the exact number would only be known today when pilgrims begin flocking back to Mina to perform the hajj's most dangerous ritual involving the stoning of three pillars symbolizing Satan's powers.
"This year we drafted a special plan to channel pilgrims to jamarat," said Turki using the the Arabic term for the pillars.
He said pedestrian traffic would move on three main roads while two new tunnels were added to transport pilgrims in buses to the area, which has been the scene of several tragedies, such as a stampede in 2004 that killed 251 and another in 1990 that killed 1,426.
Almost 60,000 security, health, emergency and other personnel are involved in organizing the hajj this year, trying to ensure none of the deadly incidents that have marred it in recent years are repeated.
Also, 14 hospitals and dozens of clinics and field facilities are ready to deal with any contingency.
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