The Muslim world’s annual Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, has begun.
Some two million people have gathered to celebrate Islam’s greatest annual spiritual moment, and the Saudi Arabian authorities are determined to avoid any repeats of the accidents and tragedies that have marred the event in the past.
More than 100 000 members of the security forces have been mobilised to deal with the flood of one and three quarter million foreigners expected over the next week. 300 to 500 thousand Saudis are also expected to take part.
It is a beautiful spectacle at night, but in daylight the logistical scale of the event becomes clear, with Mecca a sea of people in constant movement demanding round-the-clock sanitation and medical facilities, and food and water.
Today sees the first stage of the Haj, the day’s prayer in the Mina valley, an arid bowl some 10 kilometres from Mecca which is transformed for the festival into a giant tented city.
The final ceremony is the ritual stoning of the devil and walk around the Kaaba, the climax of the celebrations.