MECCA/GAZA CITY: Three hundred Palestinians freed in a recent swap for a captured Israeli soldier are among more than 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims who began Friday the rites of the annual hajj pilgrimage, leaving the holy city of Mecca for Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammad is believed to have delivered his final hajj sermon.
Hamas border official Maher Abu Sabha said Friday Saudi Arabia offered to fly the prisoners, released last month, to the pilgrimage. They were due to cross from Gaza into Egypt late Friday to catch the flights.
Dressed in white, pilgrims flooded the streets Friday as they headed toward Mina, around 55 kilometers east of the holy mosque.
The day is known as Tarwiah (Watering) Day, as pilgrims traditionally watered their animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, some 10 kilometers further on.
Many pilgrims took buses, while others set off on foot for a village that comes to life for just five days a year.
Others were using the Mashair Railway, also known as Mecca Metro, to go to Mount Arafat and its surrounding plains where they will gather for the peak Day of Arafat Saturday.The Chinese-built railway will operate for the first time this year at its full capacity of 72,000 people per hour to ease congestions and prevent stampedes in which hundreds have been killed in past years.
The dual-track light railway connects the three holy sites of Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat – areas that see huge congestion during the five-day pilgrimage. It will replace 30,000 cars previously used, said project director Fahd Abu-Tarbush.
“The train this year is restricted to the pilgrims coming from inside Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, as well as 200,000 pilgrims coming from south Asia,” Tarbush told AFP.
“Mashair Railway will transport 500,000 pilgrims from Mina, passing by Muzdalifah, reaching to Arafat, in addition to 1 million pilgrims on the Tashreeq days,” which are on the 11th, 12th and 13th of the Muslim month of Dhul Hijjah.
Around 1.7 million Muslims descended on Mecca from around the world while between 700,000 and 800,000 pilgrims are coming from inside Saudi Arabia.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those who are able to make the journey, and it is a dream that can take years to come true.
“To me, this is a miracle. I’ve been dreaming of going to hajj for years, and this dream is now being fulfilled,” 67-year-old Nigerian pilgrim Salahuldin Mohammad told AFP.
Another pilgrim, 58-year-old Mohammad Sadoreen from the Palestinian territories, said: “I couldn’t believe the day has come when I would see this sacred place. This is the first time I come to hajj.”
The hajj will end Sunday with Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.
Coping with the world’s largest annual human assembly poses a security headache for Saudi Arabia – guardian of the two holiest Muslim shrines in the cities of Mecca and Medina, the birth places of Islam.
Saudi authorities have numbered the buses and tents in Mina according to the countries from which the pilgrims have come to prevent chaos.
Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars over the years to avoid deadly stampedes that have marred the hajj in the past.
It also launched a new $10.6 billion project for a new extension to Mecca’s Grand Mosque to increase its capacity to 2 million worshippers.
“We haven’t faced any problems. I didn’t expect all these services to be available,” said 55-year-old pilgrim Abdul-Hadi Badran.
A total of 97,000 Iranians – the maximum allowed for Iran under a Saudi system apportioning pilgrim quotas among the world’s biggest Muslim countries – are also in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Iranian media said Monday.
“We hope this year’s hajj will take place in a very calm and spiritual atmosphere,” the representative of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the pilgrimage, Hojatoleslam Ali Ghazi Asgar, said last week.