Jamrat (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims threw pebbles on giant columns symbolising Satan on Saturday, part of annual haj rituals that mark the first day of Eid al-Adha feast celebrated by Muslims across the world.
Helicopters hovered overhead while security officers organised the flow of worshippers in Jamarat, where the stoning ritual takes place, as Saudi authorities closely watched the crowds to ensure an incident-free haj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes.
Limited numbers of pilgrims this year in the wake of the pandemic helped improve the experience. “Everything was easy, from organising the crowd, or the stoning in Jamarat, to the Tawaf (walking in circles in Mecca’s Grand Mosque),” said a Palestinian pilgrim who only gave her first name, Nussaiba.
Saudi Arabia has said up to one million pilgrims, mostly from abroad, are expected this haj season after two years of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during which the authorities allowed only Saudi residents to perform the pilgrimage.
That is less than half of some 2.6 million pilgrims that visited Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina for haj in 2019, and some 19 million others that attended umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be performed at any time throughout the year.
In a speech welcoming the pilgrims published on state news agency SPA, Saudi King Salman thanked “the huge efforts made by workers in all sectors” in the country.
Riyadh stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites and organising the world’s largest religious gathering, which retraces the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.
The kingdom deploys tens of thousands of security officers and medics as well as modern technology including surveillance drones to maintain order.
Clad in white robes signifying equality in front of God, men and women from 165 countries converged on Jamarat to perform the ritual from a three-storey bridge erected to ease congestion.