Over 2m head for Arafat
Saudi Arabia has mobilised a force of 100,000 men to protect an estimated two million Muslim pilgrims starting hajj yesterday, amid fears of attack or deadly stampedes.
The interior ministry said that in addition to many thousands of Saudis, an estimated 1.7 million of the faithful have descended on the kingdom from abroad to perform the annual rites.
Local press reports spoke of a throng that could reach three million, and the official SPA news agency reported yesterday that everything was proceeding smoothly.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which the Quran says all Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives, if they are able to do so.
It began early yesterday as pilgrims arrived on foot or by bus in Mina, a dusty valley 10 kilometres (six miles) from the holy city of Makkah.
Dozens of first aid stations lined the route, SPA reported.
Devotees are spending the day in prayer and contemplation in the valley, transformed into a city of fireproof tents.
At dawn on Sunday, they will head for the top of nearby Mount Arafat. Their time at the summit symbolises the wait for the last judgment and is the high point of the hajj.
Next, the pilgrims return to Mina to sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son on God's orders. This marks the start of the Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice.
They will spend another two days in Mina for the final rite, the stoning of Satan. Each pilgrim throws 21 pebbles at each of three pillars symbolising the devil.
This year for the first time pilgrims will get the necessary pebbles in pre-packed bags to spare them the effort of searching for the stones.
A special hajj committee organised the collection, washing and packaging of the pebbles after first obtaining a fatwa, or religious edict, permitting the initiative, the Al-Watan daily said.
The stoning is the most hazardous of the rituals. The pillars were enlarged a few years ago into 25-metre (80-foot) high concrete blocks. Bridges have been built at three levels at the site to help prevent a recurrence of fatal stampedes.
The vast tide of humanity massing in relatively small spaces has been the source of the hajj's bloodiest disasters, with stampedes causing the deaths of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
The Saudi health ministry said it has put in place some 24 field hospitals with 4,000 beds, in addition to nearly 140 health centres. They will be served by more than 11,000 medical staff and a fleet of 150 ambulances.
After the stoning ceremony, the pilgrims go to Makkah's great mosque for a "farewell visit" to the Kaaba.
US-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters fitted with sophisticated technology such as night vision equipment are being used for the first time amid the spectre of the attacks which have haunted Saudi Arabia in recent years.
"(Saudi forces) are ready to cope with their responsibilities," Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz said after inspecting the security forces supervising the hajj.
"Terrorism is not finished. It is still going," Prince Nayef told journalists ahead of the pilgrimage.