BEIRUT — In streaming ribbons of white, great masses of Muslim pilgrims made their way between cities of air-conditioned tents toward the next stop on their holy tour of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Then something went disastrously wrong, trapping the crowds in narrow streets, touching off a mass panic and crushing stampede that left the asphalt covered with lost sandals, crumpled wheelchairs, and piles of white-robed bodies.
It was the deadliest accident during the hajj pilgrimage in a quarter-century, with at least 717 pilgrims from around the world killed and more than 860 injured. And it posed yet another challenge for the country’s new leader, King Salman, who is already facing low oil prices, a war in Yemen, and an increasingly fierce rivalry with Iran.
The stampede was the latest in a series of crises that have plagued the pilgrimage this season. Two weeks ago, a crane collapse killed more than 100 visitors, and hotel fires have injured others. The missteps have embarrassed the insular Saudi monarchy, which considers itself the global guardian of orthodox Islam and takes great pride in protecting the holy sites and their millions of annual visitors.
Salman — who bears the title of “the custodian of the two holy mosques,” giving him personal responsibility for Mecca and Medina — expressed his condolences for the dead in an address aired on Saudi state television. He ordered a review of the management of the pilgrimage, and a commission was formed to investigate.
Other officials appeared to blame the dead. The Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, said in a statement that the stampede may have been caused by “some pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities.”
But some present in the area at the time said security forces had temporarily closed exits from an area packed with pilgrims, causing the crowding that led to the stampede.
Khalid Saleh, a Saudi government employee who rushed to the site when he heard screams and sirens, said he had found “huge numbers of people on the ground either dying or injured.” Pilgrims there told him that some of the area’s exits had been closed so that VIP cars could pass, he said.
Iran blamed the tragedy on Saudi mismanagement. The head of Iran’s hajj organization, Said Ohadi, said two paths near the accident had been closed for “unknown reasons.”
“This caused the tragic incident,” he told Iranian state television. “Saudi officials should be held accountable.”
At least 131 Iranians were among the dead, according to Iranian news agencies.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, blamed “misconduct and improper acts” by Saudi officials and declared three days of public mourning.
The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars on construction in Mecca in recent years aimed at enlarging the grand mosque, adding accommodations, and facilitating movement between the sites. Those investments followed several high-casualty accidents, including the 2006 deaths of 360 people on a bridge that had long been identified as a dangerous choke point.
Nevertheless, Thursday’s stampede is likely to renew criticism that Saudi Arabia lacks the management skills to protect one of the world’s largest regular human migrations.
Major General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told reporters that large groups of pilgrims had run into each other and started shoving, causing the stampede, which was exacerbated by heat and fatigue.
Turki and other officials said they would not comment on how the streets had become so crowded before the official investigation was complete.
And Saudi officials restricted reporters for hours after the accident, preventing them from reaching the site and investigating its cause.
The accidents have occurred as the Saudi government spends billions of dollars to construct buildings — including the world’s largest hotel — that critics say have destroyed the sites’ setting and cater only to the wealthiest pilgrims.
But accidents that kill large numbers of visitors have become less common than they were during earlier eras. The last was the stampede in 2006, along with a building housing pilgrims that collapsed, killing at least 73 people.
Sami Angawi, a Mecca-born architect who has spent decades studying the pilgrimage, said the Saudi government faces a huge logistical dilemma in welcoming so many people and cycling them through a series of specific sites in a limited amount of time. Some 2 million pilgrims from 180 countries are performing the hajj this year.
He said the pilgrims’ diversity and lack of a common language added to the challenge. “With a huge number like this and all the diversity that is in it, it is hard to communicate and do orientation,” he said.
But he criticized the government for seeking to build its way out of the problem instead of improving crowd control.
“The solution is not in making more roads or bridges,” he said. “It is in how to organize the management of people to have a flow from one area to another.”