JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Less than two weeks before the world’s largest annual gathering, 1.5 million Muslims from around the world have flooded into the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the hajj pilgrimage.
Coming by sea from east Africa, by land from the Gulf but mainly by air, a total of two million Muslims are expected to perform the hajj ritual this year, one of the five pillars or duties which Islam requires of believers.
The number, which includes a projected 250,000 Saudi pilgrims, could be down by 10 percent or more from last year due to limitations on accommodation in the sprawling Mina tent city, still under construction.
Officials said there were no particular health threats this year, unlike fears in 2009 that swine flu would spread virulently during the gathering. In the end, the disease caused little trouble.
The five-day hajj is expected to begin on November 14, although the date is not yet certain.
The pilgrimage takes place during the middle of the month of Dhul al-Hijja, and the date will be determined once Saudi religious authorities announce the start of the month with the sighting of the crescent moon.
Pilgrims have been pouring through the dedicated hajj terminal at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International airport at a rate of 60,000 a day over the past week, according to airport officials.
Overnight boats, mainly from Sudan, have also been drawing up at Jeddah’s port, delivering thousands more African pilgrims each day.
“I’m very excited to be here,” Malaysian engineer Zulkepli Saad said as he waited at immigration with his wife in the airport hajj terminal.
With several days left before the actual hajj begins, the pilgrim said: “I’m going to Medina to visit the prophet’s shrine and all the historical mosques.”
This year’s hajj will sport a brand-new Chinese-built train linking Mecca with the key sites near the holiest city in Islam.
The 6.5-billion-riyal (1.7 billion dollar), 18-kilometre (11-mile) Al-Mashair rail connects Mecca to Arafat, Muzdalifa and Mina, site of a massive tent city for housing more than one million pilgrims.
It is expected to cut the journey between the locations from several hours in log-jammed buses to much less than one hour.
But the line will open with limited capacity this year. Only Saudi and other Gulf pilgrims will be able to make use of it for the whole period of the hajj, at a cost of 250 riyals (67 dollars) a person for seven days.
On special days, including the Eid al-Adha holiday and Al-Tarwiyah, the day of ritual livestock sacrifice in a feast at the end of the hajj, everyone will be able to buy tickets.
Another addition is the completion of the five-story walkway that funnels pilgrims through the ritual of “stoning the devil” at the Al-Jamarat pillars.
The structure, already used last year, looks like an elongated open parking garage. It was built to help avoid the panics and stampedes at Jamarat that killed hundreds of people in previous pilgrimages, the most recent in 2006.
Dr Ziad Memish, a senior health ministry official for the hajj, said swine flu is not a concern this year, even though it killed three people in Saudi Arabia in October.
Against fears of a possible health catastrophe, the disease only had a small impact in 2009, infecting just dozens and killing five.
The Saudis mobilised 20,000 extra health workers in 2009 to deal with the threat, but with the pandemic officially declared over in August by the World Health Organisation, Memish said “this year we are much more relaxed.”
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By Paul Handley (AFP)