- Islam - religion - Saudi Arabia
Pilgrims gather at Mount Arafat for peak day of hajj
More than two million Hajj pilgrims assembled Monday at Mount Arafat and on the surrounding plains on the peak day of the annual hajj gathering.
AFP - Some two million Muslim pilgrims descended on Monday from Mount Arafat, concluding the highlight of the hajj and beginning a slow trip back to Mecca to finish the annual pilgrimage.
White-robed pilgrims began arriving in Muzdalifah, their first stop after leaving Mount Arafat and its plain, site of the Prophet Mohammed's last sermon.
Many unauthorised pilgrims who had camped out on the pavements in the Arafat area trekked the few kilometres (miles) on foot and pitched their tents in Muzdalifah.
Pilgrims traditionally collect pebbles at Muzdalifah for the next day's symbolic "stoning of the devil" in Mina.
The ritual, on the day of Eid al-Adha or Feast of Sacrifice, has been marked in the past by deadly stampedes, but the Saudi authorities have expanded the site to several levels to make it safer.
Monday's ceremonies saw pilgrims converge on Mount Arafat and its surrounding plain from early morning.
Chanting the Talbiyah -- "O God, here we come, answering your call" -- they set off before dawn for the hilltop that dominates the plain of Arafat.
Those who managed to jostle their way through the heaving humanity to the summit of the hill, which is also known as Jabal al-Rahma or the Mount of Mercy, sat on rocks to recite Koranic verses and pray.
Some used mobile phones to take pictures as others lay on straw mats spread on the ground.
"My feeling cannot be described," said Syrian Mossaad Mheymeed as he stood at the summit of Mount Arafat. "I feel it is already Judgment Day."
"Thank God for this grace," added his companion Hussein al-Alawi, 55, also from Syria.
The granite hill, rising some 60 metres (200 feet) from the plain and no more than 200 metres (218 yards) long and of similar width, is topped with a four-metre pillar said to be the spot where the Prophet delivered his final sermon.
Pilgrims vied to touch the white cement structure, some crying, although the pillar, its lower section darkened through human contact, is not meant to have religious significance.
On the plain below, movement came to a virtual standstill because of the sheer numbers of people.
Buses stood four lanes deep as they competed for use of the road with pedestrians, who crammed the narrow spaces between the idling vehicles in an effort to keep making headway.
At one edge of the plain, a group of women in wheelchairs and children in strollers was surrounded by pilgrims heading in all directions.
At noon, pilgrims filled the Namera Mosque and the nearby streets and camps for collective prayer, dressing one of Arafat's main wide streets in white for a length of at least of three kilometres (two miles).
Pilgrims climbed atop kiosks and even public toilet blocks when they could not find empty space on the ground on which to pray.
The gathering at Arafat symbolises the climax of the hajj which began on Sunday with some two million pilgrims flowing from the nearby holy city of Mecca or directly into Mina, a tent city that comes to life only during the five-day pilgrimage.
There were no immediate reports of major incidents as security officials focused on crowd control.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz had said on Wednesday he could not rule out the possibility of Al-Qaeda trying to sabotage the pilgrimage.
But Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said in an online statement on Sunday that it was against targeting the hajj.
"We assure our Islamic nation that we are against any criminal action aimed at the pilgrims," it said.
Prince Nayef on Sunday put the number of pilgrims from abroad at a record 1.8 million. Some 200,000 permits were also given to local pilgrims, including Saudis and pilgrims from Gulf states.
By Sunday tens of thousands of unauthorised pilgrims had also entered the valley, however, bypassing highway checkpoints aimed at enforcing a "No permit, No hajj" rule.
At the foot of Mount Arafat on Monday, the Jabal al-Rahma Hospital teemed with pilgrims affected by the heat and fatigue.
"I have blood pressure problems and diabetes problems," said Abdul Saboor Hassanain, a retired Egyptian, as he left the hospital with pills in hand.
"God willing I will continue the hajj," he added.