Haj at high point a year after deadly stampede

Muslim pilgrims perform the midday prayer at the Nimra Mosque near Mecca on Sunday (Sept 11).
Muslim pilgrims perform the midday prayer at the Nimra Mosque near Mecca on Sunday (Sept 11).PHOTO: EPA

MUZDALIFAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - The haj reached its high point Sunday when Muslims from across the world converged on a stony hill in Saudi Arabia, a year after the worst tragedy in the pilgrimage's history.

More than 1.8 million people gathered from sunrise to sunset at the hill and a vast surrounding plain known as Mount Arafat, about 15 kilometres from Mecca.

In stifling heat they chanted a traditional haj incantation, "God, here I am", spending the most important day of the annual rite in prayer and reading from the Koran.

The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which capable Muslims must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives.

Arafat is the site where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon about 14 centuries ago after leading his followers on the pilgrimage.

After sunset, the throng moved aboard buses to nearby Muzdalifah, in preparation for the first haj stoning ritual since a deadly stampede during last year's pilgrimage.

"The feeling is indescribable. I am very happy and I hope everything goes well until the end of haj," said Saudi pilgrim Bashar Aatabi, 30.

He was eating chicken and rice on the ground with his friends after reaching Muzdalifah.

Mohammed Khyara, 51, from Syria, was busy collecting stones for Monday's ritual.

"It's my fourth haj but this time my wife is with me so the happiness is even greater," he said.

At midday prayers in Mount Arafat, hundreds of thousands of people prostrated themselves, men and women side-by-side, in wide alleys that run between prefabricated pilgrim lodgings.

"It's beautiful to see the Muslims of the world pray together here," said Indian pilgrim Mohammed Arafan, 40.

A teenage Indian pilgrim, who gave her name only as Janifa, said she was "lucky, and very grateful" to have made the pilgrimage with her parents.

From a distance, the Arafat hill appeared a snowy white because of the seamless two-piece white garment, ihram, worn by male pilgrims. Women also usually wear white.

They come from every corner of the globe for the haj, but Indonesia - the most populous Muslim nation - has the largest contingent.

Trucks loaded with bottled water were stationed throughout, and pilgrims doused themselves.

Empty bottles and leftover meals littered the ground as ambulances patrolled.

At Muzdalifah, half way between Arafat and Mina, pilgrims gather 49 pebbles for Monday's symbolic stoning of the devil, the last major rite of haj.

It coincides with Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice marked by Muslims worldwide.

King Salman arrived in Mina to ensure pilgrims can "perform their rituals easily, conveniently and safely", the Saudi Press Agency said.

He was also being briefed on the movement of pilgrims between the holy sites.

During last year's stoning ritual in Mina, a stampede killed roughly 2,300 people on their way to the Jamarat Bridge to perform the rite.

Saudi Arabia issued a death toll of 769, but figures compiled from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher.

Authorities announced an investigation into the tragedy but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.

Among these is the distribution of bracelets which store pilgrims' personal data. Roads have also been widened in the Jamarat area, newspapers reported.

Pilgrims have told AFP they feel safe and have noticed organisational improvements.

"The Saudis organise everything for us. We are truly at ease here in Arafat," Youssef al-Mehri, 24, of Oman said with a prayer rug slung over his shoulder.

On Sunday, helicopters monitored the crowd flow from the skies, while on the ground, police directed pedestrians and made sure there were no bottlenecks.

Despite the safety and security measures which Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Shiite Iran has angrily questioned the kingdom's custodianship of Islam's holiest places.

Iran last year reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its 64,000 pilgrims are excluded for the first time in decades after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranian faithful held an alternative pilgrimage on Saturday in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to an official at the shrine of Imam Hussein.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it had launched a television channel to broadcast the haj rituals in the Persian language, also known as Farsi, spoken in Iran.