MECCA, Saudi Arabia Nov 19 - Muslim pilgrims rushed to wrap up their rituals for the hajj and headed to Mecca on Thursday as the world’s largest annual pilgrimage was hit by a storm that exacerbated congestion.
The pilgrims, who had completed the symbolic ritual of stoning the devil at Mina valley, descended on the holy city in western Saudi Arabia to perform the farewell circumambulation seven times around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque.
A tide of humans covered King Abdul Aziz boulevard which links the stoning site in Mina with the Al-Haram Al-Sherif sacred site in Mecca.
The rain and hail storm hit Mina valley and Mecca as hundreds of thousands of unauthorised pilgrims, who had squatted on the pavements during the hajj season, packed and headed to Mecca.
The unexpected tempest came after light rain fell on Wednesday evening following a brief storm which blew away the makeshift covers of pilgrims who sneaked into the valley without permits.
Although rain later became lighter, the short showers were enough to create ponds on the road junctions of Mecca, and form long lines of stationary coaches trying to transport pilgrims.
The hajj season officially ends on Friday, the third Tashreeq day, but pilgrims who are in a rush to conclude their hajj and leave Mecca can do so on the fifth day.
Saudi statistics revealed on Tuesday that some 2.8 million pilgrims took part in this year’s hajj, way up from their early estimate of around two million.
A total of 1,799,601 pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia and 989,798 from inside the country made the hajj this year, making a total of 2,789,399, according to the government statistics.
The increase was most likely due to a flood of pilgrims without permits. Authorities on Sunday put the number of permits issued to Saudis and citizens of other Gulf states at just 200,000.
Pilgrims swarmed the markets of Mecca buying presents and souvenirs.
“I am looking for Yemeni honey,” said Malaysian Rozini Mohammed Amin as she visited a date and local sweets kiosk in an upmarket mall opposite the Grand Mosque.
“I will be buying dates and praying mats for the family. Before I came here people gave me gifts, so I have to give back gifts,” she said.
At neighbouring kiosks, pilgrims shopped for prayer beads and jewelry, in keeping with the custom of carrying presents from Mecca. Less well-off pilgrims haggled for presents from lower-scale shops in the older markets.
On Monday, the hajj peaked with the assembly of all pilgrims in the plain of Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon on a hill known as Mount Arafat, or the Mount of Mercy.
No major incidents have so far been registered, a pay-off for Saudi investments in expanding infrastructure at the sacred sites, mainly at the Jamarat stoning site, which has been expanded into a five-level bridge ensuring a smooth flow of pilgrims.
Some pilgrims also enjoyed the service of the Chinese-built light railway link between the sacred sites outside Mecca, which operated for the first time this year, using 35 percent of its ultimate capacity.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz warned ahead of hajj that he could not rule out the possibility of an Al-Qaeda attempt to sabotage the season, saying the security forces were ready to foil such attempts.
But Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula swiftly issued an Internet statement saying it opposed attacks on hajj pilgrims.
- AFP (UtusanMalaysia)