MAKKAH - From Asia, Africa and points in between, nearly 1.5 million Muslims began the annual Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to Islam's holiest sites Saturday.

After preliminary rituals this week in Makkah at the Grand Mosque, pilgrims moved on Saturday, many by bus, to Mina several kilometres east.

In debilitating temperatures exceeding 40 C (100 F), some pilgrims walked under coloured parasols. They are following in the footsteps of their Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who performed the same rituals about 1,400 years ago.

"It's an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand. This is my sixth Haj and I still cannot express how happy I am to be in Makkah," said Hassan Muhammad, 60, from Egypt.

The Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which capable Muslims must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives.

"People come from every country of the world, talk every language of the world, and meet here in one place under one banner, the profession of the Muslim faith," said Ashraf Zalat, 43, also from Egypt.

The first day of Haj was traditionally the chance for pilgrims to let their animals drink and to stock up on water. Then they proceed to Mount Arafat, several kilometres further, for the peak of the Haj on Sunday.

Okaz newspaper reported that, for the first time in 35 years, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's top cleric, will not deliver a sermon to the Arafat crowds. The paper cited health reasons.

Mina becomes the pilgrims' base, where an expanse of solidly built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million people beneath bare mountains.

Last September 24, Mina was the scene of the deadliest disaster in Haj history, when the stampede broke out as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual. This year's "Stoning of the Devil" will start on Monday (tomorrow).

Although Riyadh stuck with a stampede death toll of 769, data from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher - at least 2,297.

Saudi Arabia announced an investigation but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.

Government facilities have been moved out of Mina to free up space, and roads in the Jamarat area expanded, Saudi newspapers reported.

Officials have been issuing pilgrims with bracelets that digitally store their personal data, after some foreign officials expressed concern about difficulties in identifying the stampede dead.

Authorities aim to give bracelets to each of the 1.3 million faithful from abroad, who are expected to be joined by more than 100,000 Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia. There has been no figure for the number of bracelets distributed so far.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki spoke of "great efforts being exerted by the kingdom, not only in maintaining the security and safety of the pilgrims, but in facilitating performance" of the rites in comfort.

Pilgrims appeared satisfied on Saturday. "Everything is well organised," said Nasser Benfitah, 54, from Morocco. "We feel safe," added Nigerian pilgrim Hafsa Amina, 26.

Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in Haj infrastructure and safety projects over the years.

This includes expansion of the Grand Mosque whose complex houses a plaza of white stones stretching for hundreds of metres.

Just beyond this area, known as the Haram, or sacred site, luxury multi-storey hotels and shopping centres fill the skyline.

The Haj draws rich and poor, whose common humanity is emphasised by the white garment that each man wears. Women wear loose dresses, typically also white.

Despite the safety and security measures which Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Iran has questioned the kingdom's custodianship of Islam's holiest places.

The two countries do not have diplomatic relations and are at odds over a string of regional issues including the wars in Yemen and Syria.

Iran reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its pilgrims are excluded for the first time in decades after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.