ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia Dec 7 – A human tide washed over Mount Arafat on Sunday morning as hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims gathered for the key moment of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.,
Starting just after dawn, in mild weather, the faithful made their way slowly on foot or by bus onto the hill, also known as the Mount of Mercy, where the prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon more than 14 centuries ago.
So far, no major problems have developed organisers said, although a record number of people have come from outside Saudi Arabia for the event and media say the total number of participants may reach three million.
For the second day of the hajj — which lasts four days or more — the male pilgrims wore two pieces of unstitched cloth, serving as a shroud, while the women were entirely covered apart from face and hands.
Closely monitored by security forces, the crowd chanted the phrases: "Here I am in answer to Thy call, Lord, here I am. There is no other God but Thee. Praise be unto Thee."
"This is a day of great joy," one man said before breaking down in tears on his arrival at Arafat, overwhelmed with happiness on taking part in the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which the Koran says Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives if they are well enough and can afford it.
Just as emotional, Suad Dasuqi, a 50 year-old Egyptian woman, called for "the victory of Islam and a tightening of the ranks of Muslims," praising the hajj for uniting the faithful of different races and colours, and from all continents.
As the vast crowd edged along, sometimes delayed by the awkward movement of hundreds of buses carrying pilgrims, the faithful were offered free meals and drinks, handed out by volunteers.
They spend the rest of their time on Mount Arafat praying and beseeching God for his forgiveness, as a symbol of the wait for judgement day.
At sunset the faithful start to move towards the valley of Muzdalifah, a few kilometres (miles) away, to spend the night.
On Monday, participants return to Mina, where the pilgrimage began on Saturday with a day of prayer and contemplation.
Once back in Mina, they sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, to recall Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s order. This ritual marks the start of the Eid al-Adha feast.
They then spend another two days in Mina for the stoning of Satan, the last and most dangerous rite, which has left many people dead in previous years after stampedes broke out.
The authorities have built bridges at three different levels in a bid to avoid the trampling that caused the death of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
So far this year "no incident has been recorded," according to Prince Khaled al-Faisal bin Abdel Aziz, the governor of Mecca.
The Saudi interior ministry has assembled 100,000 stewards to ensure safety during the hajj and the health ministry has supplied 11,000 of its medical and paramedical staff along with 140 first aid points and 24 field hospitals containing a total of 4,000 beds.
The ministry said on Saturday that 1,728,841 pilgrims from abroad, the highest ever number, had entered the kingdom. They joined the hundreds of thousands of Saudi citizens and other residents participating this year.