Up to two million Muslim faithful have begun converging on Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, a sacred duty to be accomplished at least once if possible in a Muslim’s lifetime. Last year saw 1.4 million foreign pilgrims flock to the desert kingdom, and the holy sites, Mecca and Medina, received a further 470,000 pilgrims from within the country. Massive security has been laid on for the annual rituals.
Saudi authorities fear a repetition of last year’s stampede in which 251 pilgrims were trampled or suffocated to death as they vied to stone three pillars representing the devil in Mina, near Mecca. They’re also worried about possible action by al-Qaeda, who have launched several attacks in Saudi Arabia. Local newspapers have printed pictures of armoured vehicles, helicopters, fire-fighters and ambulances. The pilgrimage climaxes Wednesday on Mount Ararat, with Eid al-Adha, the feast of the Sacrifice, following on Thursday.