MOUNT ARAFAT, SAUDIA ARABIA // More than two million white-robed Muslims converged on Monday at Mount Arafat as the Haj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, peaked at the site of the Prophet Mohammed’s last sermon.
Chanting the Talbiyah, “O God, here we come, answering your call,” pilgrims set off before dawn in a bid to reach the top of the hill that dominates the plain of Arafat.
Those who managed to jostle their way through the heaving crowds to the top of the hill, which is also known as Jabal al Rahma, or the Mount of Mercy, sat on the rocky edges reciting Quranic verses and praying.
Some used their mobile phones to take pictures. Others lay down on straw mats spread over the rocks.
My feeling cannot be described,” said the Syrian pilgrim Mossaad Mheymeed standing at the top of Mount Arafat. “I feel it is already judgment day.”
“Thank God for this grace,” said his companion, Hussein al Alawi, 55, also from Syria.
The granite hill, rising some 60 metres from the plain and no more than 200 metres in length and of similar width, is topped with a four-metre pillar, said to represent the spot where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final Haj sermon.
Pilgrims vied to touch the white cement structure, some crying, although the pillar, whose lower section has darkened through human contact, is not meant to have a religious significance.
Down below, movement on the plain came to a virtual standstill due to the crowd’s sheer size.
Buses stood in four lanes as they fought for use of the road with pedestrians, who crammed the thin spaces between the idling vehicles in a bid to keep moving.
At one edge of the plain, women in wheelchairs and children in strollers were caught in the middle of jostling 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 over a minimum of three kilometres.
Pilgrims climbed the roofs of communication kiosks and public toilets when they could not find an empty spot on the ground to perform the prayer.
When the prayer was concluded, many worshippers were seen falling on top of others as the crowds moved in opposite directions.
The gathering in the plain of Arafat symbolises the climax of the Haj pilgrimage which began Sunday with more than two million pilgrims flowing from neighbouring Mecca, or directly into Mina – a tent city that comes to life only during the five-day annual pilgrimage.
There were no immediate reports of major incidents as security officials focused on crowd control.
Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi interior minister, said last week that he could not rule out the possibility of a sabotage attempt by al Qa’eda during Haj.
But al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said on Sunday it was against targeting Haj.
“We assure our Islamic nation that we are against any criminal action aimed at the pilgrims,” it said in an online statement.
Prince Nayef on Sunday put the number of pilgrims from abroad at a record 1.8 million, while some 200,000 permits had been given to local pilgrims, including Saudis and pilgrims from Gulf states.
But tens of thousands of unauthorised pilgrims had by Sunday poured into the valley, skirting their way around motorway checkpoints trying to enforce a rule of “No permit, No Haj.”
At the foot of the hill yesterday, the Jabal al Rahma Hospital was teeming with sick pilgrims affected by heat and tiredness.
“I have blood pressure problems and diabetes problems,” said the Egyptian Abdul Saboor Hassanain, who has retired, as he walked out of the hospital with pills in hand. “God willing I will continue Haj,” he said.
After sunset, pilgrims move to Muzdalifah, half way between Mount Arafat and Mina, to spend the night.
Today, they return to Mina after dawn prayers for the first stage of the symbolic “stoning of the devil” and to make the ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a lamb.
On the remaining three days of Haj, the pilgrims continue the ritual stoning before performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca and then heading home.