Muslim pilgrims circled Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, on Wednesday in traditional white robes, with new additions — umbrellas and face masks — as the opening of the annual hajj was snarled by the heaviest rains in years and fears of swine flu.
Saudi authorities had already geared up for months with precautions for fear that the pilgrimage could become a perfect incubator for the H1N1 swine flu virus. The event is one of the most crowded in the world, with more than 3 million people from every corner of the globe packed together shoulder to shoulder in prayers and rites for four days.
Now they scrambled to deal with sudden, unexpected downpours that could worsen the perennial dangers of the gathering, particularly deadly stampedes.
Just a slip on a wet sidewalk at the hajj rites could be deadly. In 2006, all it took was a dropped piece of luggage amid a moving crowd to trip up people and cause a pileup that killed more than 360 people at one of the holy sites. Also, the rains can cause flash floods or mudslides in the desert mountains where the rites take place.
On Wednesday, the only fallout from the rains were epic traffic jams, flooded tents of pilgrims and washed-out streets as the faithful tried to make their way to the Kaaba in Mecca. To kick off the hajj, they circle seven times around the cube-shaped shrine draped in black cloth.
At times, crowds of men and women under umbrellas, some wearing surgical masks against the flu, circled in the rain-soaked open air courtyard of the mosque surrounding the shrine. But at other times during the day, the site was nearly empty, as were the surrounding streets, usually jammed tight with people praying, eating and selling goods on the hajj's opening day.
"It was very surreal, there was a lot of people yet it was quiet," said Shahidah Sharif, from Atlanta, Ga., after she performed the circumambulation, or counter-clockwise walk around the shrine. "There was just a hush when people were hurrying to get in and get settled. I think the rain calmed the atmosphere and cleansed it. It's giving us a chance to rest."
Many were struggling just to get to the site. Floods closed down part of the main road to Mecca from the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah — the entry point into the country for most pilgrims. As a result, cars were backed up as long as 20 miles, nearly half the highway's length.
Streets were flooded in Jiddah, waist-high in some areas, and some pilgrims and journalists were trapped there, while in Mecca, electricity cut off and on throughout the day.
Mecca and Jiddah often see rain during the winter months, but Wednesday's downpour was the heaviest in years to coincide with the four-day hajj. Jiddah was swamped with 2.76 inches of rain, more than it gets in a year on average, according to Dale Mohler, senior meteorologist at the weather Web site, Accuweather.com.
More flooding expected
With a storm system intersecting with moisture from East Africa, scattered rains were expected through Friday. "They are still not totally out of the woods yet," Mohler said, warning of the possibility of flash floods and mudslides in the mountains surrounding Mecca. "There's no vegetation on the slopes to soak up the rain," he said. "I would be concerned that there could be some additional flash-flooding for the next two days."
The hajj is a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim. Many around the world wait a lifetime for a chance to make the spiritual journey in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad and Abraham, considered by Muslims a progenitor of Islam. For believers, it is an opportunity to cleanse one's sins before God.
But it is also a logistical nightmare. Over four days, the population of a small city moves by car, bus and foot between Mecca and several holy sites in the desert nearby, each day performing a different rite all at the same time.
Saudi authorities urged the crowds to move cautiously and not rush to avoid accidents in the rain. Civil Defense spokesman Maj. Abdullah al-Harthi said his organization has plans ready to deal with flooding, and had 300 buses to evacuate people if necessary. He said no casualties have been reported from the rains, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Saudi Arabia's biggest worry for months ahead of the hajj was swine flu. The Saudi government has been working with the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up clinics and take precautions to stem any outbreak.
Signs at the airport and around the holy sites urge the faithful to cover their faces when they cough, wash their hands often and wear a mask. The swine flu vaccine is given free at the airport for those who want it. More than 100 clinics have been set up at holy sites, and large supplies of Tamiflu and other anti-flu medications are on hand.
Hassan El Bushra, an epidemiologist in the Cairo office of the World Health Organization, said "there is no evidence" that the rain would worsen the spread of H1N1. The virus is carried in the air, by sneezes, coughs and touch — not waterborne. The rain could even be beneficial if it means crowds are smaller, he said.
Still, Shahul Ebrahim, a consultant from the Atlanta, Georgia-based CDC at the hajj, said his team and the Saudis were keeping watch. "Rain can lead to other waterborne diseases ... But we still don't know how it will effect H1N1. We can't predict," he told The Associated Press.
So far, four pilgrims have died from the H1N1 virus since arriving in Saudi Arabia in recent days, and 67 others have been diagnosed with the virus, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah told the Arab news network Al-Jazeera English.
The crowds, crammed with seven people a square yard, provide a perfect environment for swine flu's spread, said Ebrahim. "There is no personal space," he said. "Ideally you should be one meter away from someone to avoid catching the disease."
The crowds are expected to exceed last year, when some 3 million attended, said Amer al-Amer, an Information Ministry spokesman. But the actual number was still unknown, and some could decide at the last minute not to show up either because of flu fears or the rain.
But most were too caught up in the exhilaration of the spiritual experience to worry. Nigerian pilgrim Omar Issa said he chose not to get a swine flu vaccination.
"I am not afraid of anything because God protects me. I came here for a religious reason, I am here to worship God," he said.
In Mecca, men in the simple white robes traditional for the rites and head-scarved women crowded under concrete overhangs or under shop eaves to avoid the rain as they made their way to their destinations.
The vast majority of pilgrims spent the day slogging through mud and rain at a sprawling tent city where they will reside through the hajj in the desert valley of Mina, several miles outside Mecca. Many tents were lightly flooded, with water puddling the floors.
Still, "people are in high spirits," said Sharif, speaking to AP from Mina. "Most people are praying."
On Thursday, the mass will flock to Mount Arafat, a plateau outside Mecca where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon. They then proceed to Mina, where over the next three days they perform a rite stoning three stone walls in a symbolic rejection of the devil.
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