MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia – Close to two million pilgrims have converged on western Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj, where new measures aim to prevent a recurrence of last year’s stampede that killed around 2,300.
While the main rites of the six-day event begin on Saturday, pilgrims have already been swirling around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, in a procession that continues day and night.
It is one of the first rites of the pilgrimage, which is among the largest religious gatherings in the world.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which capable Muslims must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives.
Rich and poor alike come dressed in the same white garments.
“I feel no fear at all,” said Adel Abdul Rahman, a British pilgrim confident that authorities have tried to make the faithful feel safe.
A Nigerian visitor, Lawan Nasir, 45, said the loss of a cousin in last year’s stampede did not stop him from coming.
“The pains have not dulled a bit,” he said, but it would be “silly” to stay away.
“Death will come when it will come and nothing can save one from its claws.”
In one of several safety measures implemented after the stampede, access to the Kaaba — a black cube that Muslims across the globe face while they pray — is suspended during prayers, and the walk around it is stopped to avoid overcrowding.
The Saudi Gazette on Friday quoted mosque officials as saying the circumambulation area has been expanded to hold about 30,000 pilgrims an hour, up from 19,000.
Security has also been reinforced around Islam’s holiest site, with officers in red berets and camouflage uniforms manning green plastic barricades to control the crowd.
Saudi Arabia announced an investigation into last year’s stampede which happened during the Hajj stoning ritual, but the findings have not been published yet.
Asked about the status of the Saudi inquiry, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al Turki said that a committee including engineers and security and health officials “is still working and didn’t release any statement yet.”
Initial statements by Saudi police said it appeared that two large crowds heading in opposite directions intersected on Road 204. Crowds in the back, unaware of the congestion ahead, kept pressing forward.
In recent decades, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to improve Haj safety and accommodate more people. It built the massive, multistorey Jamarat Complex with large pedestrian paths in Mina, where pilgrims throw pebbles at columns in a ritual stoning of the devil. Many of the pedestrian roads leading to the complex are narrow, however.
The government also is working to create a National Centre for Joint Security Operations to centralise oversight of the video feed from more than 5,000 cameras along Hajj routes.
One significant change is the expansion of Road 204 to ensure it’s at least 12 metres wide in all areas.
Hisham Al Falih, head of the Haj Preparatory Committee, said that 12 projects costing about $53.3 million were implemented to improve the Hajj this year. Some tents in Mina on streets that were previously blocked have been relocated to open roads, and some paths were widened, he said.
But Al Falih added that there is only so much his committee and others can do to prepare for dealing with crowds of up to 3 million people.
“We are humans at the end of the day. We are doing all that we can do, and the rest is with God,” he said.
During the main weekly Friday prayers, the white-clad throng made the area around the Kaaba resemble a snow-dusted field from above.
A helicopter flew overhead and main roads in the city were shut to allow hundreds of thousands of pedestrians access.
With temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius as they marched, some pilgrims seemed faint. They carried water and tried to help each other under the unyielding sun.
Local media say more than 300,000 faithful from inside Saudi Arabia are also expected.
Zakou Bakar, 50, a pilgrim from Niger, said the bracelet was reassuring.
“If I die or if there are problems — of course we hope not — but if it does happen I know I will be identified,” he said.
Absent from this year’s Hajj will be tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims after talks between Tehran and Riyadh on logistics and security fell apart in May.
Iran claimed that 464 nationals died in last year’s crush, the largest number of dead by nationality.