|Pilgrim caravans flock to Saudi Arabia|
|AL-JUHFAH, Saudi Arabia: Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have flocked to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, with many arriving via one of five towns ringing the holy city.
In one of them, Al-Juhfa, located in the middle of the Hejaz desert about 150 kilometers north of Mecca, a group of Iranian pilgrims gathered around their buses parked outside a mosque.
"I recited labbeik an hour ago and started crying," says Mohammad Hussein Ranjbar, 54 of the central Iranian city of Isfahan, referring to a prayer in which pilgrims declare their submission to God and their intention to start hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
It is at Al-Juhfa that pilgrims traveling in camel caravans from Damascus and Cairo stopped hundreds of years ago to perform Ihram, a ritual of cleansing and prayers that is supposed to put the pilgrim in a state of sacred dedication.
Afterwards, the commencing of the rites of hajj inside Mecca can begin, which corresponding to the Muslim lunar calendar is scheduled to start on January 7 this year.
The great majority of modern-day pilgrims travel in planes to Saudi Arabia arriving at the bustling airport of Jeddah, on the west coast.
Some come in a state of Ihram, reciting their prayers inside the plane as it flies close to Mecca, while others prefer to follow old tradition and perform the ritual in one of five towns around Mecca designated by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.
More than 622,000 pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia as of December 23, according to officials. In recent years, the total number of pilgrims coming for the annual hajj has reached two million.
"Hajj is the biggest annual conference in the world," says Sheikh Khalaf bin Mohammad al-Motlaq, a cleric in charge of the Al-Juhfa site.
He is seated on the floor of a carpeted room in a small building adjacent to the mosque. "It is a miracle the Prophet foretold the eventual spread of Islam by outlining before his death the boundaries of the sacred realm with Ihram sites, each designated to caravans depending on their origin," adds Khalaf.
Inside the mosque, male Iranian pilgrims in white garb read the Koran, pray or stretch out on the carpeted floor for a nap ahead of their journey at sunset further north to Medina, burial place of Prophet Mohammad, before heading back south to Mecca.
A man with an amputated leg sits against the wall as his crutches lie nearby.
"It is really hard for me, but I am doing this for the second time for the love of God," says Mustafa Zariy, 44, from the Isfahan region, explaining that he is performing the hajj this year on behalf of his father who died recently without having completed the rites.
He says he is going to try to be at peace with himself despite the "bitterness" he feels towards western countries, which he claims were responsible for the loss of his leg in 1982 during Iran's long war with Iraq.
Zariy says toppled President Saddam Hussein fought the war with arms supplied by countries including France.
Back at Jeddah's airport a group of gleeful Iraqi pilgrims arrive from the southern city of Basra.
Abdel-Amir Amer, 41, proudly displays the pouch belt he will put on to hold his money after he switches into Ihram clothing at Abyar Ali near Medina.
"This is going to be fantastic," he says.
Beirut,01 02 2006
The Daily Star