, MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia, Sep 10 — Close to 1.5 million Muslims from around the world prepared on Saturday night for the climax of the annual hajj pilgrimage at a rocky hill known as Mount Arafat.
The pilgrims will mark Sunday with day-long prayers and recitals of the Koran holy book at the spot in western Saudi Arabia where they believe their Prophet Mohammed gave his last hajj sermon.
The numbers are down this year because of the absence of 64,000 Iranians over tensions between their Shiite nation and the Sunni-dominated kingdom.
Last year’s hajj stampede which killed roughly 2,300 people, many of them Iranians, magnified those frictions.
Masses of Iranian faithful held an alternative pilgrimage on Saturday in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of the Iraqi capital.
After preliminary rituals this week in Mecca at the Grand Mosque, the pilgrims in Saudi Arabia moved east on Saturday to the tent city of Mina and Mount Arafat.
They are following in the footsteps of their prophet who performed the same rituals about 1,400 years ago.
“It’s marvellous. I’m here closer to God. It’s an indescribable feeling,” said an Egyptian pilgrim who gave her name only as Louza, 45, as a helicopter monitored the throng.
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.
Pilgrims come from every corner of the globe but Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-populated nation — has the largest quota.
Despite diverse languages and origins, they all “meet here in one place under one banner, the profession of the Muslim faith,” Ashraf Zalat, 43, from Egypt, said in Mecca.
Okaz newspaper reported that, for the first time in 35 years, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, will not deliver a sermon to the Arafat crowd on Sunday.
The paper cited health reasons for the absence of the grand mufti, who has also waded into the Saudi-Iranian row over the hajj.
– Mina main base –
After Mecca, Mina becomes the pilgrims’ base, where an expanse of solidly built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million people in a valley beneath bare mountains.
Guides in orange vests helped to direct pilgrims while police cars patrolled and troops were stationed at regular intervals.
Last September 24, Mina was the scene of the deadliest disaster in hajj history, when the stampede broke out as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual.
This year’s “Stoning of the Devil” will start on Monday.
Although Riyadh stuck with a stampede death toll of 769, figures compiled from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher — at least 2,297.
Saudi Arabia announced an investigation into the disaster but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.
Among the changes, government facilities have been moved out of Mina to free up space, and roads in the Jamarat area expanded, Saudi newspapers reported.
Officials have also been issuing pilgrims with bracelets that digitally store their personal data.
Authorities aim to give bracelets to each of the 1.3 million faithful from abroad, who are joined by more than 100,000 Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki spoke of “great efforts being exerted by the kingdom, not only in maintaining the security and safety of the pilgrims, but in facilitating performance” of the rites in comfort.
Pilgrims appeared satisfied.
“The transportation went well and the lodging is comfortable,” said Salah Gaddoumi, 40, from Sudan, who is on his second hajj.
“It’s better organised this time,” he said in Mina.
Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in hajj infrastructure and safety projects over the years.
Despite the safety and security measures which Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Iran has questioned the kingdom’s custodianship of Islam’s holiest places.
The two countries do not have diplomatic relations and are at odds over a string of regional issues including the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Iran last year reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its pilgrims are excluded for the first time in decades after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.
Many of the Iranians who would have travelled to Mount Arafat wound up instead in Karbala to visit the Imam Hussein shrine.
An official in Karbala said that one million pilgrims were expected, mostly from Iran.