The hajj - the pilgrimage to Islam's holy city of Mecca - is required of all Muslims once in their lifetime, if they are physically and financially capable of making the journey. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, following the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, reminding Muslims of their commitment to God and of Judgment Day.
As this year's hajj approached, with more than 2 million pilgrims heading to Mecca, Saudi authorities prepared to prevent an epidemic of SARS, meningitis or yellow fever and, at the last minute, worried about avian flu. As usual, they made plans for crowd control in Mina, where 180 people were killed in a stampede in 1998.
Pilgrims from countries with SARS outbreaks had to undergo scans that measure body temperature; all pilgrims were required to have vaccinations for meningitis; and some needed yellow fever vaccinations. More than a month ago, the government said 10,000 guards would impose strict controls over the stoning ritual at Mina, where pilgrims had also been trampled in 1994, 2001 and last year.
But as the 10-stage pilgrimage moved into its last days Sunday, people grew emotional as they headed along a wide ramp, preparing to throw pebbles at three stone pillars, symbolizing contempt for the devil. The eager crowd pressed forward, setting off a stampede, and 244 people were trampled to death. Seven more died of injuries yesterday.
An additional 272 people died during the hajj, Saudi officials reported, from disease, old age or exhaustion.
"All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will," said Hajj Minister Iyad Madani. "Caution isn't stronger than fate."
Yesterday, King Fahd said an agency would be formed to redevelop Mecca and Medina, and Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, Saudi Arabia's senior cleric, said religious action would be taken as well to make the hajj safer.
The hajj is usually performed during the first 13 days of the last month of the Islamic lunar year. This year, most pilgrims gathered in Saudi Arabia last week to begin the hajj Friday.
In the first stage of the hajj, pilgrims purify themselves before entering Mecca; men symbolize their status by wearing two white, unsewn pieces of cloth; women wear a whole piece of cloth. The Arabic word ihram describes their garments as well as state of consciousness.
In Mecca, various rituals are observed, including walking around the Kaaba, the black cubic structure in the center of Mecca's Grand Mosque, and praying before pilgrims change into their regular clothes.
In the third stage, the pilgrims put on their ihram garments again and walk to Mina, about 4 miles east of Mecca, where they spend a day and night in prayer, sheltered in a tent city. In 1997, 340 pilgrims died in a fire there.
From Mina, they walk to Arafat, 12 miles southwest of Mecca, where they pray to God for forgiveness. The time spent there is believed to symbolize Judgment Day, when Islam says every person will stand before God and answer for his deeds.
After sunset, they undertake the fifth stage, leaving for Muzdalifa, about halfway between Arafat and Mina, with prayers at a spot where the Prophet was said to have prayed.
They spend the night at Muzdalifa, and at sunrise begin the sixth stage, returning to Mina for the stoning ritual; an animal is slaughtered in sacrifice, symbolizing how God tested Abraham by ordering him to kill his son, at the last moment substituting a sheep for him. Here, ihram garments are removed.
In the seventh stage, pilgrims return to Mecca and again walk around the Kaaba, which they consider was built by Abraham and his son. For the eighth stage, they return to Mina for the stoning, returning to Mecca for the ninth stage. For the 10th stage, some pilgrims visit the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, but that is not required.