Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims crowded the pathway to three large stone pillars Saturday, some stepping on toes or gently shoving to reach their goal, where they cried out “Allahu Akbar” as they threw pebbles.
The final day of the symbolic “stoning the devil” ritual was slightly more frenzied than the past two days, as the pilgrims — many carrying their luggage — were in a rush to return to Mecca for the final rite of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
But there were no major problems and doctors reported only a few dozen minor injuries, such as scratches and bruises.
Crowd reaches 'critical density'
“Everything is under control,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki. “We have been able to manage very well despite the crowd reaching critical density.”
The pilgrims have only until sundown to perform the ritual on Saturday, instead of midnight as on other days.
Many ignored loudspeaker warnings — in Arabic, English, Farsi and Urdu — to walk slowly and not push each other. “Give everyone a chance so you get your turn,” said the voice on the loudspeakers, repeating a message also displayed on large electronic message boards at the entrance to the Jamarat, or pillars that represent the devil.
“Watch your head!” some called out, as those not able to get close enough to the stone walls threw their pebbles when they could, sometimes accidentally hitting a taller person in their path. Some pilgrims added to the congestion by trying to backtrack the way they had come.
As the crowd thinned in the late afternoon, a thunderstorm slowed the passage of pilgrims. Umbrellas were opened, and many found plastic bags in their luggage to hold over their heads. The mountain ranges that surround the valley could barely be seen through the heavy rain, and thunder and lightning rattled the pilgrims.
Al-Turki said about 160,000 people per hour were passing over the footbridge leading to the pillars.
The ritual is a notorious bottleneck, and Saudi Arabia made extra precautions this year in an effort to prevent the deadly stampedes that have occurred in the past. Last year, 244 people were trampled to death when the crowd panicked during the stoning ritual.
This year, authorities widened the walkways approaching the site to 80 yards across to reduce congestion. The Saudis also rebuilt the three pillars. Previously, the pillars resembled tall obelisks. Now they are stone walls 85-feet long, allowing many more people to pelt them with pebbles at the same time.
A religious fatwa also extended the hours permitted for the ritual.
It appeared the precautions made the ritual smoother and safer.
“You expect something to happen in a crowd like this,” one policeman said. “So far things are going OK.”
Some 15,000 police, civil defense personnel and soldiers are on duty at Mina, an increase of 5,000 from previous days because of the crowd’s intensity on the final day, al-Turki said.
“It’s a very large crowd and we don’t want to take any chances,” he said.
Record 2.56 million pilgrims
The always crowded ritual was even more so this year: A record 2.56 million pilgrims are participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage, a half million more than the previous high, set in 2003, the Interior Ministry said.
Pilgrims finished with the stoning boarded buses or set off on foot for Mecca, about 1 mile away, where they will circle the Kaaba, the black cubical structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque, seven times in the final act of the hajj.
The pilgrimage began with the circling of the Kaaba, which Muslims around the world face during their five daily prayers. Pilgrims then went to nearby Mount Arafat, where Islam’s seventh-century prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in A.D. 632. Some have spent three days at the stoning ritual in Mina.
Some pilgrims may extend their religious experience by visiting holy sites in Mecca and Medina, about 280 miles north of Mecca.