Nearly 1.5 million Muslims begin annual Hajj pilgrimage

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have begun the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, though this year Iranians are absent as tensions between Tehran and Riyadh flare over last year’s stampede.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, September 6, 2016.

Nearly 1.5 million Muslims from around 150 countries began the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site, in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, recreating the journey taken by the Prophet Mohammed about 1,400 years ago.

All able-bodied Muslims are required to do Hajj once in their lifetime if they can afford it.

During the pilgrimage, women forgo makeup and perfume while men dress in seamless, white robes. These restrictions are meant to emphasise the equality of all Muslims and prevent wealthier pilgrims from differentiating themselves with more elaborate garments.

Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 8, 2016. (Reuters)

Pilgrims begin Hajj by circling Kaaba, one of the the holy shrines in Islam, seven times. After spending the night in the massive valley of Mina, they head to Mount Arafat, some 20 kilometers east of Mecca, for the pinnacle of the pilgrimage.

Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 23, 2015, during the Hajj pilgrimage. (AP Archive)

Around sunset, pilgrims head to an area called Muzdalifah, nine kilometers (5.5 miles) west of Arafat. They spend the night there and pick up pebbles along the way that will be used in a symbolic stoning of the devil back in Mina.

This aerial image taken from a helicopter shows Muslim pilgrims throwing pebbles at a stone pillar representing the devil, during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 28, 2009. (AP Archive)

The number of pilgrims is less than last year due to the absence of tens of thousands of Iranians. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have flared over a stampede last year which killed 2,000 people, including hundreds of Iranians.

Last May, officials from the two countries held talks over arrangements for Iranian citizens in relation to the pilgrimage but failed to reach an agreement.

Members of Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, September 5, 2016. (Reuters)

This year the Saudi Government has taken a number of safety measures in order to prevent another stampede.

In order to free up space in Mina, where the stampede took place, government facilities have been moved out of the area and the roads near the Jamarat Bridge have been expanded.

Ariel view of Mina in Mecca, September 6, 2016. (Reuters)

Officials have also been issuing pilgrims with bracelets that digitally store their personal data, after some foreign officials expressed concern about difficulties in identifying those killed in past stampedes.

No figure for the number of bracelets distributed so far has been released.

TRTWorld and agencies