Dubai, United Arab Emirates Each year, roughly 2 million of Islam's 1 billion adherents worldwide make their way to Mecca for a pilgrimage that is a pillar of their faith.
Saudi Arabian authorities expect about the same number of people to perform the hajj Â or pilgrimage Â this week, but the travelers will find their journey less crowded and security much tighter.
Many people opted to stay away from Mecca this year, either because they fear more terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11 or have been affected by the global economic recession.
Tour operators say a substantial decrease in foreign visitors is evident.
"The number of pilgrims from the Indian subcontinent, especially India and Pakistan, has decreased by 25 to 30 percent, mainly because they can't afford it. The cost for citizens from these countries has increased by 50 percent," said Saeed Abdul Razzak, director of the Haramain Pilgrimage Campaign.
Saudi authorities have tried to reassure Muslims that everything possible is being done to ensure a safe and smooth pilgrimage, but Razzak expects just half of the nearly 90,000 North American and European pilgrims who performed the hajj last year. The hajj started Wednesday.
"Many foreigners are still reluctant to travel and others fear terrorist attacks, but this is highly unlikely," he said.
Stepping up security
The pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home to Islam's holiest shrine, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims who are able-bodied and can afford the trip are obliged to do it once in their lifetime.
Security in Mecca, a sleepy city in western Saudi Arabia that swells to bursting during the hajj, is a priority for authorities as they struggle to accommodate the pilgrims and arrange their lodging and movement through the streets.
While the Saudi government usually does not announce the number of security forces it deploys during the hajj, officials said the number of undercover intelligence officers in Mecca has more than doubled, in addition to the tens of thousands of police on the streets.
The Saudi government installed digital eye-scanning and fingerprinting machines to collect data on pilgrims at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, which receives 80 percent of nonresident pilgrims.
Surveillance cameras monitor the proceedings on every street and corner, and guides and medics are at hand to lend assistance.
To keep the number of pilgrims reasonable, the government sets a quota of one pilgrim for every 1,000 people in each of the 56 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. For other nations, Saudi authorities determine quotas based on the number of applicants.
'Here I am'
Men dressed in white seamless garments wrapped like togas and women wearing white robes covering everything but their face and hands converge on Mecca, where they circle the Kaaba, the large cubic stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers.
Covered with a black cloth, the Kaaba houses the Black Stone. It was a pagan pilgrimage site before Muhammad destroyed the idols there and established worship of the one God.
From Mecca, the pilgrims head toward Mina, a small tent city that only comes alive during the hajj.
They spend the night there, then journey at dawn to Mount Arafat Â a little more than 10 miles southwest of Mecca Â where Muslims believe that Muhammad gave his last sermon 14 centuries ago. At Mount Arafat, the pilgrims chant in unison "Here I am, oh Almighty, here I am."
The pilgrims trek to the nearby plain of Muzdalifah at sunset to collect pebbles for the symbolic ritual of "stoning the devil" in Mina the next day.
After the stoning Â from giant ramps that surround three pillars symbolizing the devil Â the pilgrims perform the ritual of sacrifice, slaughtering a camel, sheep or cow to mark the beginning of Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice."
The act commemorates God's provision of a ram at Mina to substitute for Abraham's impending sacrifice of his son. It is celebrated by Muslims throughout the world, and is regarded as the most important feast in the Islamic calendar.
The pilgrims remain in Mina for two more days to again perform the stoning of the devil ritual, then perform a "farewell circling" of the Kaaba before leaving Mecca.
This is not the first time security and safety have been major concerns at the hajj.
Last year, about 35 Muslims died in a stampede while performing the "stoning of the devil" ritual. Stampedes in 1994 and 1998 killed and injured hundreds of people and, in the most deadly tragedy related to the hajj, 1,426 pilgrims died in another stampede in 1990.
Recognizing that the stoning of the devil ritual was among the most hazardous for the pilgrims, authorities have over the past few years expanded the areas leading to the pillars, erected giant ramps to facilitate access and reviewed movement by the pilgrims toward them.