MOUNT ARAFAT, SAUDI ARABIA // Officials say 48 people have died in Saudi Arabia and 900 were rescued after the heaviest rainfall in years. A spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, Brig Gen Mansour al-Turki, said today that none of the casualties were among the millions of pilgrims who are in Saudi Arabia for the haj. The four-day pilgrimage, which started yesterday, draws more than 3 million people from every corner of the globe. The rains tapered off today, but meteorologists predicted further showers.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency said Wednesday's deaths were in the port city of Jiddah, Rabigh and Mecca. The statement blamed the deaths on flooding and collapsed homes. Saudi Arabia's biggest worry for months ahead of the haj has been 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.
There is also the risk of one of the gathering's perennial dangers: deadly stampedes. In 2006, all it took was a dropped piece of luggage to trip up a crowd and cause a pileup that killed more than 360 people at one of the holy sites. The rains could also cause flash floods or mudslides in the desert mountains where most of the rites take place. It often rains in Mecca and Jiddah during the winter months, but Wednesday's downpour was the heaviest in years during the haj. Jiddah was swamped with seven centimetres of rain, more than it would normally get in an entire year, according to Dale Mohler, senior meteorologist at the website, AccuWeather.com.
Today, Muslim pilgrims holding white umbrellas against the blazing sun clambered up a rocky desert hill for prayers during haj. After Wednesday's sudden, unexpected downpours, the heat was scorching as millions of pilgrims travelled to Mount Arafat, a desert plateau about 20 kilometres outside Mecca where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his farewell sermon. Throughout the day, the faithful climbed up the Mountain of Mercy, a rocky hill at Arafat, and prayed for God's forgiveness of their sins in what Muslims consider the spiritual high point of the pilgrimage.