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Pilgrims have started to arrive in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Roughly 345,000 pilgrims from other countries have arrived in Madinah to perform Hajj this year, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.
International and local pilgrims will start their pilgrimage on Thursday in Makkah before heading to Mina — known as the city of tents — eight kilometres to the east of Makkah, where they will stay for the rest of their pilgrimage.
The city of tents
The Mina valley is an open space covered with more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents and it can accommodate more than 2.6 million people, extending over 2.5 million square meters.
Mina is known for accommodating Hajj pilgrims every year. Pilgrims stay in Mina for a couple of nights during the month of Dhu Al Hijja, while performing Hajj.
Mina is known as the largest tent city in the world. Pilgrims must stay in Mina during Hajj and perform the Stoning of the Devil at the Jamarat. The ritual is performed between sunrise and sunset in the final days of the Hajj.
Hajj tents in 2022 — what's new?
The tents or camps are divided into three categories based on the new packages offered by the Saudi government this year.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has announced three packages for this year's pilgrimage. The Al Abraj package will cost about 14,738 Saudi riyals ($3,930) per pilgrim, the “developed” tents package will cost 13,044 riyals, while the “normal” tent package will cost 10,239 riyals.
This year, six pilgrims will be accommodated in the developed tents with an area of 2.5 square metres designated to each pilgrim. Ten pilgrims will be accommodated in the normal tent, with an allocated space of 1.6 square metres per pilgrim.
“All bedding and essentials will be supplied to pilgrims. These will be cleaned and sanitised every day,” said Khalid, a Saudi Hajj guide. “Fresh hot meals will be catered to pilgrims every day, as well as umbrellas, water, snacks and refreshments throughout their journey.”
Mr Khalid said each tent has a resting room for pilgrims who may suffer from heat strokes or any injuries, “with a doctor and medicines available for all pilgrims”.
The evolution of Mina tents over the years
In the 1900s, regular tent fires used to break out in Mina due to pilgrims not following safety guidelines, causing injuries and damage.
Initially, tents were made of cotton, but after a fire in 1997 flame-retardant tents were introduced, made of fibreglass tissues covered with Teflon, to prevent fires breaking out and spreading across tents, and the emission of toxic gases.
Before the 1900s, Hajj pilgrims would bring and set up their own tents and bedding and dismantle them on their return.
In the 1900s large groups of people would sleep in their tents, use a communal bathroom and cook their own food.
“I have memories of people bringing their own food, even rice, and cooking every day. It was not very safe and really exhausting as you had to feed the old and young members of your family while performing Hajj,” says Mrs Fatima Khan, an Indian pilgrim.
“My daughters who did Hajj last year said they were given fresh meals thrice a day, they have their own beds and weren't cramped like we were. It's unbelievable how easy it is now, such a big difference from what we had like 15 years ago. It's so well done and developed now.”
The new air-conditioned tents help pilgrims stay cool during summer. They have electric outlets, mobile phone chargers and other electronics. Groups of tents are joined through corridors, with signposts in different languages leading people to emergency exits, and surrounded by metal fences for security.
Pilgrims share communal areas, toilets and bathrooms. They have access to freezers and fridges at receptions, serving cold water, snacks and ice-cold refreshments free of charge throughout their stay.
Health and safety protocols this year
Sprinklers have been installed throughout the tents to disperse water upon sensing heat, with an alarm system set to alert pilgrims and security staff in case of any danger.
Water tanks with a capacity of 200,000 cubic meters are stored in the Mina valley in case a fire breaks out.
Authorities have outlined procedures that must be followed at entry points within and before entering the country. These include verification of all health documents, including vaccination certificates and screening in person.
Pilgrims will be divided into groups for transport to holy sites.
Unlike during the past two years, when there was a ban on open buffets and local caterers, this year pilgrims will be able to eat together, though they cannot bring food of any kind from their countries.
The 195 catering companies approved by Makkah’s municipality are expected to provide 4.8 million meals per day to pilgrims. Authorities will conduct continuous field inspections throughout the Hajj season to ensure food quality and hygiene.
In the past two years, each pilgrim was served three individual fresh and sterilised meals during the day. This year, Makkah municipality said 4.8 million meals will be served per day to pilgrims during the Hajj season.
Saudi health authorities said they will continue to assess and update the precautions as needed.
Hajj, the Arabic word for pilgrimage, is one of the five pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim, if they are able.
Millions of faithful make the pilgrimage to holiest sites of Islam in the cities of Makkah and Madinah, beginning on the eighth day of Dhu Al Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar.