RIYADH, (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday that the Hajj pilgrimage of some 2.5 million Muslims to the Islamic holy city of Mecca has ended without the deadly crowding or violent clashes which marred other years.
“I’m sure all security personnel feel satisfaction and relief right now … The security plan was applied precisely, leading to the great success of this Hajj,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef said in comments carried in the Saudi media.
Last January 362 pilgrims were crushed to death during a stone-throwing ritual at the Jamarat Bridge in the worst Hajj tragedy in 16 years. In 2004, 250 people died at the same spot.
Another such incident would have been an embarrassment for the Saudi government, whose legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims lies in its ability to organise a safe Hajj.
“It is our duty to treat pilgrims well and handle the pressure of such a number of people from different cultures,” the prince told officers. “You implemented orders without hurting any pilgrim, even if they swore at you, which is difficult.”
Security police — part of a 50,000 deployment to organize and protect the Hajj — had instructions to be stricter than normal in removing pilgrim squatters who often set up makeshift tents and wade through the crowds with personal belongings.
New construction work completed in recent months allowed up to 250,000 pilgrims to pass over the bridge each hour in the last three days of the 5-day Hajj, which ended on Monday. “The Custodian of the Holy Mosques (King Abdullah) and our countrymen have the right to feel joyous over this success,” the daily Okaz said in a jubilant editorial.
Hajj pilgrims will head back home from Mecca carrying not just the memory of the ultimate spiritual experience in Islam but also gifts for beloved ones, with prayer beads a hot favorite.
From the cheapest versions worth just a few cents to the costly varieties made of gemstones, the easy-to-pack prayer beads come second only to bottles of “divine” water from the spring of Zamzam in Mecca, which Muslims believe originated from heaven.
“I bought them for 50 riyals (13 dollars) from Mecca and am taking a few for relatives and other beloved ones,” said Yemeni pilgrim Saleh al-Harazi, showing off his newly acquired prayer beads on Tuesday.
“It’s not the price that matters, but where I bought it from,” said Harazi, one of nearly 2.4 million Muslim faithful from around the world who took part in this year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage ending today.
In addition to Zamzam water and prayer beads, pilgrims also take home prayer rugs and copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
Other popular souvenirs and gifts include incense, perfumes, gold items and dates.