By Souhail Karam
MUZDALIFA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Some two million Muslims headed to Muzdalifa on Thursday after spending the day at the plain of Arafat to prepare to cast stones at the devil in the most dangerous part of the annual haj pilgrimage.
Bright weather greeted the pilgrims after heavy rain hit the nearby city of Jeddah, gateway to Mecca, on Wednesday. Some 77 people were killed, none of them pilgrims, most of whom were swept away by currents and drowned, state television said.
At Muzdalifa, the pilgrims will collect pebbles to throw at walls at the Jamarat Bridge on three occasions over the next three days in an act that symbolizes the rejection of the devil’s temptations.
The bridge has been the scene of a number of deadly stampedes — 362 people were crushed to death there in 2006 in the worst haj tragedy since 1990.
Saudi authorities have made renovations to ease the flow of pilgrims at the bridge, adding an extra level so that pilgrims have four platforms from which to throw stones.
The fittest chose to walk the distance of about 3 km (2 miles) to Muzdalifa on a special highway joining the sites while others clung to any form of transportation they could find.
Young Saudis sped around on motorbikes looking for customers in a hurry and seeking to avoid the congested traffic.
Aisha Mennan, 63, from Morocco, managed a smile as she sat against a wall waiting for a bus. “I just cried and cried while I stood and prayed in Mount Arafat. You really feel something special as if you are standing before the Almighty,” she said.
“Now I can die in peace. My two sons and three daughters have been saving for years to send me here and when the money was ready I had to wait another three years before I got picked by a ballot. I’m very lucky to be here,” said Mennan.
In Mecca, pilgrims flocked to Arafat to pray until sunset. They set up tents on a plain, squatted on the side of the road in shelters or stayed at the nearby Namira mosque.
About 1.6 million pilgrims have come from abroad for the haj, the world’s largest regular religious gathering and a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once if possible. Many wait for years to get a visa under a strict quota system.
The haj marks sites that Islamic tradition says Prophet Ibrahim — biblical patriarch Abraham — visited in Mecca and that Prophet Mohammad established as a pilgrim route 14 centuries ago after removing pagan idols from Mecca.
Islam is now embraced by a quarter of the world’s population.
Wednesday’s rainfall, the heaviest the desert country has seen in years, prevented thousands of people from getting to Mecca from Jeddah, Saudi haj organizers said.
“God gave us a reprieve from the rainfall on the most important day of haj. It shows his immense clemency,” Indonesian pilgrim Abdulwadood Asegaf said.
“We are going to avoid going up the Mount Arafat this time because it is too muddy,” he added.
“The rain was a blessing from God. We are now going to pray to beg for God’s forgiveness and mercy, for the good of our children and of all Muslims,” said Egyptian pilgrim Nasser Abu Ahmed.
Nigerian businessman Mustafa Abu Bakr said Muslims from different parts of the world and different walks of life renew their allegiance to God in Arafat.
“We will pray for world peace,” he said.
Authorities have reported none of the problems that have marred the haj in previous years such as fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and stampedes.