Amid exceptionally mild weather for the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the flow of buses and cars bringing in the Muslim faithful was incessant.

Pilgrims came to the western Saudi Arabian city from places as far apart as sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia and the United States.

The human tide flocked to the Grand Mosque to pray or to visit the sanctuary known as the haram, as they prepared for the Hajj which starts on Friday.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam required of able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford it.

Cool weather 

Makka is the holiest place in the
world to Muslims

Their effort is aided by cool weather this year with temperatures expected to swing between 14 and 32 degrees Celsius on Saturday, the pivotal day of the Hajj.

This is the day when the faithful gather at Mount Arafat before dawn and stay there until sunset praying for forgiveness.

The Prophet Muhammad received the last passage of Islam's holy book, the Quran, during his last sermon on the hillock almost 14 centuries ago.

Makka and the nearby holy city of Madina were hit with torrential rains last week causing floods.

The cold weather has caught some of the pilgrims coming from warm countries by surprise, with health experts blaming some of the recent deaths on that.

Pilgrim deaths 

At least 113 pilgrims, mostly from southeast Asia, have died, many of them from exhaustion, chronic illnesses or road accidents, the Saudi Gazette reported on Sunday.

Many pilgrims were seen wearing masks as the bird flu grips Asia and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) appears to be making a comeback in Hong Kong.

"I cover my nose just as a precaution," said an Indonesian pilgrim.

Security will be tighter than usual
during the Hajj this year

Another pilgrim from Lebanon said the mask was a way "to protect against the risks of coming in contact with people from different parts of the world who may be ill".

Security concern 

Twenty hospitals, 188 health centres and 155 ambulances have been dedicated to serve the estimated two million faithful converging on Makka for the annual rituals.

More than 100 medical specialists and nurses from Britain, the United States and Malaysia have been brought in to work in emergency, intensive care and anaesthetic units bolstering 9500 local doctors, nurses and administrators.

The Hajj Ministry is focusing on preventive measures and checking pilgrims as they arrive at 24 entry points into Saudi Arabia.

Security is another concern of Saudi authorities who have stepped up the police presence in the holy city, which was the scene of deadly clashes last June between security forces and suspected Islamist dissidents.