Hundreds of thousands of Haj pilgrims began streaming into tent city at Mina by foot, on buses and in four-wheel drives late Saturday amid extreme heat and humidity.
On their way, pilgrims were met by many checkpoints manned by security men, health officials and traffic police, who asked pilgrims to display their Haj permits.
The much feared mobile fingerprint machines were nowhere to be seen.
Although skies were overcast, high temperatures ensued while pilgrims flooding into Makkah suffered traffic jams that turned a regular 40-minute drive from Jeddah into a grueling 3-and-a-half-hour marathon.
Helicopters hovered overhead, directing security officials on the ground.
Despite strict measures taken by security officials, an Arab News reporter witnessed numerous illegal pilgrims dodging checkpoints and taking detours through mountainous routes.
Indonesian pilgrims were the first to arrive inside Mina. Pilgrims were awestruck by the white landscape inside tent city.
Among the first Saudi officials to arrive in Mina was Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, minister of health. He visited the Emergency Center Health Complex in Mina and spoke to journalists.
He told Arab News: “There is no reason to panic because we have not detected a single case of MERS among pilgrims thus far. There is no epidemic whatsoever.” He said health care precautions have been taken in line with international regulations to screen pilgrims coming into the holy sites from 16 entry points.
“Every single pilgrim has been vaccinated and full care has been taken in Mina to quell health threats,” the minister said.
Al-Rabeeah said that pilgrims should wear masks as a precaution.
“We are not aware of how this virus is transmitted, so we have advised pilgrims to wear masks in crowded areas as a precautionary measure.”
There are hundreds of health care workers manning dozens of hospitals and dispensaries.
Traffic flowed smoothly into Mina. However, inside Makkah, the situation was different. The Grand Mosque was packed with pilgrims as they embarked on their journey to the holy sites.
The first phase will see pilgrims move to Mina by Sunday afternoon, where they will spend the night reciting the Holy Qur’an or catching up on sleep.
Pakistani Ambassador Muhammad Naim Khan said everything is going smoothly.
Indian Consul General Faiz Ahmad Kidwai told Arab News that Indian pilgrims were moving into the tent city in groups. “Everything is going according to the plans charted by our mission in close coordination with the Saudi Haj authorities,” he said.
An Indian pilgrim, Ibrahim Mohammad Noor, said: “I am so happy to be here.” His wife, Romana Talib, said: “We have been waiting for this moment all my life. I am so happy I can’t tell you. Thank you, Allah, for helping me come here.”
Laiquddin Munaf, a British pilgrim, described his journey as a dream. “I have to pinch myself again and again to reassure myself that I am in Makkah and Mina and that I am about to perform Haj,” he said.
Seventy-year-old Fatima Bibi from Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, was brought into the tent city by her son. “This is my son Arif. He promised me that he would bring me here and he kept his promise,” she said.