Over two million Muslim pilgrims started moving after sunrise yesterday toward the plain of Arafat southeast of Mecca to perform the central rite of hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city.
"I dipped my hands and feet in red henna to show how happy I am to be with God. I am all His today," said Zeinab Rifai, 69, from Banha, north of Cairo.
She slept in Arafat overnight with two other elderly female companions inside a small nylon camping tent.
Unlike the great majority of white-clad pilgrims, Rifai wore a flower print dress and a purple headscarf. Holding her worry beads, she raised her orange-coloured hands towards the sky in prayers and supplication as tears rolled down her wrinkled face.
The majority of pilgrims however started arriving after sunrise in Arafat, a small plain some 250 meters above sea level encircled by mountains.
They had spent the night in the valley of Mina to the north in tents or camped out with blankets and mats on the streets.
Pilgrims streamed on foot into Arafat through several wide pedestrian lanes or were carried by bus as thousands of Saudi policemen and security force members directed traffic.
Tracing a journey made by Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago and following a tradition they believe was laid down by Abraham before him, pilgrims gathered in the afternoon for an emotional assembly in Arafat.
Praying for forgiveness
They will pray for mercy and forgiveness at the scene of the Prophet's last sermon and in a place where some believe Adam and Eve reunited after being banished from paradise.
The rite of wukuf, or standing, before sunset on Arafat is the high point of the hajj and without which it would be considered incomplete.
"Here I am God at Your command," chanted the pilgrims as they marched under the blazing sun.
As of Sunday some 1.5 foreign pilgrims in organized and registered tours were in Saudi Arabia for the hajj, according to authorities.
Interior ministry spokesman Major General Mansur al-Turki said this figure does not include Saudis, expatriates living in the kingdom or pilgrims traveling independently, suggesting the total number may reach 2.5 million.
Almost 60,000 security, health, emergency and other personnel are involved in organizing the hajj this year, trying to make sure none of the deadly incidents that have marred it in recent years are repeated.
And in the aftermath of the death of 76 people on Thursday in the collapse of an aging hostel in the heart of Mecca, the head of civil defense operations for the western region General Adel Zamzami said the kingdom is prepared for 12 major potential emergencies.
These include fires, stampedes, torrential rain, food poisoning, terror acts and even chemical attacks, he said Sunday.
Pilgrims will start leaving Arafat after sunset Monday and head back to Mina via the small sacred site of Muzdalifah.
Today they will start performing the riskiest rite of the hajj which involves throwing pebbles into a pit at three pillars symbolizing the powers of the devil.
"This year we drafted a special plan to channel pilgrims to jamarat," said Turki, using the Arabic term for the pillars.
He said pedestrian traffic would move on three main roads while two new tunnels will transport pilgrims in buses to the area, which has been the scene of several tragedies including a stampede in 2003 that killed 251 and another one in 1990 that killed 1,426.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and an obligation for all devout, able-bodied Muslims with the means for the journey.