By Al Arabiya with Agencies
Vast crowds of Muslim pilgrims, all dressed in white, flocked from early Thursday to Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia’s west to take part in the main rituals of the annual hajj.
Many pilgrims had camped overnight in the sprawling plain surrounding Mount Arafat but the majority began arriving at dawn.
Men, women, and children from 189 countries streamed to the site, some setting up small colorful tents in which they slept and prayed.
Beggars and street vendors also dotted the roads searching for generous souls among the 2.5 million believers expected to converge on the plain during the day.
“We came from Mecca. We walked from the Grand Mosque to Mina and then we took the buses to Arafat. All for the love of the prophet,” said one Egyptian man sitting on a straw mat with members of his family.
“The more tired we get, the more God will reward us,” he said.
After dawn prayers, pilgrims headed to the small hill in Arafat plain named the “Mount of Mercy” as others made themselves comfortable between its huge rocks. Many prayed, tears streaming down their faces.
It is at the foot of the hill where the Muslim Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final hajj sermon before his death.
“Arafat is the greatest pillar of the haj and I hope the Lord will accept my prayers there. I hope I have enough money so I can come here again so I can repent my sins,” said Mohammed Omar Emara, 33, a fisherman from Egypt, according to Reuters.
A preacher urged pilgrims not to climb the slippery stone staircase leading up the hill, bellowing over loudspeakers: “Neither the prophet, nor his followers have ever climbed the hill. Please do not climb it.”
Pilgrims have in previous years slipped and fallen while attempting the ascent, and others have been killed in stampedes. On Thursday, some worshippers ignored the warning and did attempt the climb, although no incidents were reported.
Amid the crowds, Syrian worshippers were seen carrying a large rebel flag, a symbol of the 19-months-long deadly uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
After sunset, the pilgrims head to Muzdalifah, between Mina and Arafat, where they collect stones to throw at the devil, one of the last rituals which takes place Friday and marks the first day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice.
The symbolic “stoning of the devil” is followed by the ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a lamb.
During the remaining three days of the hajj, the pilgrims continue the stoning ritual before performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca and heading home.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.
More than 100,000 members of the security and civil defense forces have been deployed to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, while some 3,000 CCTV cameras have been installed across hajj sites.