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From Asia, Africa and points in between, nearly 1.5 million Muslims began the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to Islam’s holiest sites on Saturday, undeterred by last year’s deadly stampede.
The numbers are down because of the absence of tens of thousands of Iranians over tensions between their Shiite nation and the Sunni-dominated Gulf kingdom.
The 2015 stampede magnified those frictions.
After preliminary rituals this week in Mecca at the Grand Mosque, pilgrims moved on Saturday, many by bus, to Mina several kilometres east.
In debilitating temperatures exceeding 40 C (100 F), some pilgrims walked under coloured parasols.
They are following in the footsteps of their Prophet Mohammed who performed the same rituals about 1,400 years ago.
“It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand. This is my sixth hajj and I still cannot express how happy I am to be in Mecca,” said Hassan Mohammed, 60, from Egypt.
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.
“People come from every country of the world, talk every language of the world, and meet here in one place under one banner, the profession of the Muslim faith,” said Ashraf Zalat, 43, also from Egypt.
The first day of hajj was traditionally the chance for pilgrims to let their animals drink and to stock up on water.
Then they proceed to Mount Arafat, several kilometres further, for the peak of the hajj tomorrow.
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 crowds.
The paper cited health reasons.
Mina becomes the pilgrims’ base, where an expanse of solidly built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million people beneath bare mountains.
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, data from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher – at least 2,297.
Saudi Arabia announced an investigation but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.