MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — From across the world, more than 2 million Muslims swathed in white arrived in the holy city of Mecca on Sunday to perform the annual pilgrimage that for many fulfills a lifelong dream.
Hoping to prevent a catastrophe similar to last year, when a fire killed at least 343 people and injured 1,500, Saudi authorities are using fireproof tents and have banned pilgrims from cooking inside them.
The hajj, packed with symbolism and ritual, is one of the cornerstones of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to must perform it at least once.
“I had a dream before I came here that I was going for the hajj and now I’m here,” said Haji Abdullah of Brunei. “I’m very lucky to be here. It’s unbelievable. If I have a chance to come back, I definitely will.”
For the hajj, men wrap themselves in white sheets and women wear modest white robes. On arriving in Mecca, they circle the Kaaba, a cubic stone structure inside the Grand Mosque. Muslims turn toward the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, five times each day for prayer.
The pilgrimage culminates Monday, when the pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat, 12 miles from Mecca in the desert, where the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon 14 centuries ago.
Authorities have commissioned more than 20,000 buses to transport the pilgrims to Mina, a plain 6 miles north of Mecca, where they will begin their ascent. Some pilgrims left early, trekking to the mountain Sunday evening by foot or in vehicles.
The pilgrims will spend the night in tents, about 10,000 of which — one-fourth of the total at Mina — are fireproof.
Just 50 years ago, the pilgrimage might have attracted only 10,000 people. This year, it is expected to draw 2.3 million.
Saudi Arabia takes pride in providing for the pilgrims as a way to increase its stature among the world’s 1.1 billion Muslims.
Caterers will provide meals for the pilgrims, and — to cope with temperatures expected above 100 degrees — authorities have provided water coolers around Mecca and planned to distribute millions of water bottles.
They have set up hospital beds and called in more than 10,000 doctors to attend to the sick. Dozens of first-aid workers will ride motorbikes to provide emergency help.
Saudi authorities also reportedly arrested 43 pickpockets from Yemen to prevent them from preying on pilgrims. The Okaz newspaper reported Sunday that the pickpockets were arrested over the past several days with $20,000 in stolen money, including currencies from Iran, Germany, Indonesia, Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Tens of thousands of police were mobilized to provide security and keep up with the snarled traffic moving toward Mecca from the rest of Saudi Arabia. Civil defense teams and Saudi Boy Scouts helped the elderly and lost make their way through the crowds.
But with huge crowds, tragedies have occurred.
In 1994, 270 pilgrims, mostly Indonesians, were killed as worshippers surged toward a cavern for the symbolic ritual of “stoning the devil.”
A stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites killed 1,426 pilgrims in 1990.
And in 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranians, were killed and 649 were wounded when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranians holding anti-U.S. demonstrations.
Officials have attributed part of this year’s crowd to milder temperatures than in past years and improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
About 80,000 Iranians are performing the hajj. In one sign of improving ties, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri met with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd on Saturday, the Al-Riyadh newspaper reported Sunday.
Nouri relayed thanks from Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for help extended to Iranian pilgrims, according to an Iranian source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Khatami, a moderate, has called on the pilgrims to tone down their political protests. But hard-line clerics say such protests are an integral part of the pilgrimage.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted witnesses in Mecca as saying that thousands of Muslims broke into chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” in the Grand Mosque on Saturday night.
A Saudi official who requested anonymity denied any protests occurred.