Mecca :Close to two million pilgrims have converged on western Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj where new measures aim to prevent a recurrence of last year’s stampede which killed around 2,300.
The stampede legacy has contributed to renewed tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, which is not sending pilgrims for the first time in nearly three decades.
While the main rites of the six-day event begin on Saturday, pilgrims have already been swirling around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a procession that continues day and night.
It is one of the first rites of the pilgrimage, which is among the largest religious gatherings in the world.
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.
Rich and poor alike come dressed in the same white garments. “We don’t come here with fear in our hearts,” said Naouri Abdelkarim, 50, of Casablanca, Morocco.
Death can come at any time, pilgrims say, and for Lawan Nasir, 45, that meant there was no reason to avoid the hajj even though he lost a cousin in last year’s stampede.
“The pains have not dulled a bit,” but it would be “silly” to stay away, the Nigerian told AFP.
In one of several safety measures implemented after the stampede, access to the Kaaba is suspended during prayers, and the walk around it is stopped to avoid overcrowding.
Security has also been reinforced around Islam’s holiest site, where officers in red berets and camouflage uniforms man green plastic barricades to control the crowd.
During the main weekly Friday prayers, the white-clad throng made the area around the Kaaba resemble a snow-dusted field from above.
Worshippers overflowed into surrounding streets shut to allow access for hundreds of thousands of people as a helicopter monitored the scene. Pilgrims have also been told to follow the rules.
“They said not to stray from our group, not to linger when buses arrive and depart, and to properly respect the designated routes,” said Rasha Mohammed, 36, of Alexandria, Egypt.
With temperatures of 43 Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) as they marched, some pilgrims seemed faint. They carried water and tried to help each other under the unyielding sun.
The kingdom has begun issuing pilgrims with identification bracelets, after some foreign officials expressed concern about difficulties in identifying the stampede dead.