A child of a Syrian refugee going to Makkah, at the Beirut airport
3 million Muslims begin Haj pilgrimage
Makkah , October 24, 2012
Nearly 3 million Muslim pilgrims started the first phase of the annual Haj on Wednesday, travelling through packed streets from Makkah's Grand Mosque to the enormous camp at Mina just outside the city.
In a dense sea of humanity, all clad in the same simple white robes, the pilgrims who were unable to get onto a new rail link were packed into 18,000 buses provided by the city or perched on the roofs of trucks. Others walked the 5 km to Mina in late afternoon temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius.
The pilgrimage is one of the faith's so-called five pillars and is a duty for all Muslims once in their lives if they are capable of it.
The mayor of Makkah, Osama Fadl Al-Bar, said he expected the number of pilgrims this year to be close to 3 million people, including those from inside Saudi Arabia. The Interior Ministry said 1.75 million had arrived from abroad.
This year Haj comes against a backdrop of division in the Middle East, a historic centre of the Islamic world, as Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria's civil war.
Riyadh and Tehran have both played down the prospect of politically related trouble at the Haj, but Saudi authorities have warned they will not allow disruptions.
In some previous years the Haj has been marred by disasters, including stampedes and tent fires in which hundreds were killed. But the authorities have invested heavily in better infrastructure and there have been no such incidents since 2006.
On Thursday the pilgrims will travel a further 7 km to Mount Arafat, a rocky hill where they must stand in prayer, a moment many Muslims see as the climax of the Haj.
They will then spend the evening on the plains of Muzdalifah where they must pick up pebbles used the following day to hurl at three large walls representing Satan in Jamarat, between Makkah and Mina. - Reuters