Drones deployed to survey 2 million pilgrims during Hajj

  • 11 Sep 2016

The hajj 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.

Muslim pilgrims join one of the Hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca early on September 11, 2016 ( Reuters )

In a bid to prevent last year's disaster, Saudi authorities deployed drones to watch over the nearly 2 million pilgrims as they ascended Mount Arafat at the climax of the hajj on Sunday.

Muslim pilgrims arrive at Mount Arafat where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have given his final sermon, near the holy city of Mecca, on September 11, 2016

Last year's deadliest disaster was one of the worst to befall the annual Muslim rite in decades.

Authorities have deployed drones to reinforce a network of electronic surveillance of the crowds that would alert authorities to intervene quickly if necessary.

According to Riyadh, more than 800 pilgrims were crushed to death last year, though counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians.

Despite last year's catastrophe, pilgrims climbed the craggy hills outside Mecca where Islam holds that God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail and the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon.

A Muslim pilgrim reads a copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, as he joins one of the Hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca early on September 11, 2016.(AFP)

In stifling heat they chanted a traditional hajj incantation, "here I am answering your call, O Lord," spending the most important day of the annual rite in prayer and reading from the Koran.

Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca.(Reuters)

"I have prayed to God to have mercy on us, give us relief and resolve Syria's crisis," said Um Fadi, wearing a traditional long black embroidered dress and head scarf native to her home in southern Syria.

Saudi Arabia has said that 1.85 million pilgrims, most of them from outside Saudi Arabia, have arrived for the annual pilgrimage, which capable Muslims, who can afford the journey, must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives.

Muslim pilgrims walk towards a rocky hill known as Mount Arafat on September 10, 2016 to prepare for the climax of the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the Saudi holy city of Mecca.(AFP)

Pilgrims flocked to Arafat from early morning after spending a night of meditation and introspection in the tent city of Mina, which marked the first leg of their five-day Hajj.

After sunset, the throng moved aboard buses to nearby Muzdalifah, in preparation for the first hajj stoning ritual.

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

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

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray outside Namira Mosque in Arafat, on the second and most significant day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016.(AP)

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.

Muslim pilgrims gather to perform noon and afternoon prayers at Namira Mosque in Mount Arafat, southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on September 11, 2016.(AFP)

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.

Safety measures

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.

An Indonesian father carries his daughter through the crowd after reaching the top of a rocky hill known as Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual hajj pilgrimage.(AP)

They come from every corner of the globe for the hajj, but Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, has the largest contingent with more than 155,000 pilgrims.

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

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

Muslim pilgrims make their way to a rocky hill known as Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca.(AP)

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 hajj.

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.

A boy climbs Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016.(Reuters)

Additional safety measures have been implemented this year including the distribution of bracelets which store pilgrims' personal data. Roads have also been widened in the Jamarat area, newspapers reported.

Pilgrims 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.

Muslim pilgrims join one of the Hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca early on September 11, 2016(AFP)

Despite the safety and security measures which Saudi Arabia says it has taken, 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 hajj rituals in the Persian language, also known as Farsi, spoken in Iran.