MUZDALIFAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - Throngs of Muslim pilgrims converged on Monday on Muzdalifah to prepare for Eid al-Adha feast after a day of prayer on Mount Arafat for an end to disputes and bloodshed.
The faithful will spend the night in Muzdalifah to collect stones which they will use a symbolic ritual of stoning the devil in nearby Mina on Tuesday, the first day of the feast of sacrifice.
Most of the pilgrims taking part in the annual hajj to Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia travelled from Arafat to Muzdalifah on foot, while others took buses and trains, some riding on the roofs.
Thousands of security men were deployed to organise the traffic flowing into Muzdalifah, which only comes to life during the five days of the hajj.
Earlier in the day men, women and children from across the Muslim world flooded the roads to Arafat chanting "Labaik Allahum Labaik" (I am responding to your call, God), as they observed the peak of the hajj.
Helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of Saudi troops stood guard.
Many pilgrims camped in small colourful tents or took shelter under trees to escape temperatures of around 40 deg C. Special sprinklers were set up to ward off the heat.
In his annual sermon, top Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh urged Muslims to avoid divisions, chaos and sectarianism, without explicitly speaking of the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring.
"Your nation is a trust with you. You must safeguard its security, stability and resources," he said.
"You should know that you are targeted by your enemy... who wants to spread chaos among you... It's time to confront this."
The cleric did not speak specifically of the deadly war wracking Syria, where Sunni-led rebels backed by Saudi Arabia are at war with a regime led by Alawites - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - and closely allied with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah.
The cleric insisted that Islam prohibits killing and aggression and said there is "no salvation or happiness for the Muslim nation without adhering to the teachings of the religion."
Attendance is sharply down from last year, due to fears of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, including 51 in Saudi Arabia, and to expansion work at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province who heads the central hajj committee, said 1.38 million pilgrims had come from outside the kingdom while 117,000 permits were issued for locals.
This puts the total number of pilgrims at almost 1.5 million, less than half of last year's 3.2 million, after Riyadh slashed hajj quotas.
Prince Khaled said authorities had turned back 70,000 nationals and expatriates for not carrying legal permits and had arrested 38,000 others for performing the hajj without a permit.
Authorities have also seized as many as 138,000 vehicles for violating the hajj rules, and owners would be penalised, he said.
Saudi health authorities have stressed that no cases of the Mers virus have been detected so far this pilgrimage.
Prayers for peace in troubled times
Many pilgrims said they were praying for peace in Muslim nations mired in sectarian and political strife.
"I will pray the whole day for God to improve the situation for Muslims worldwide and for an end to disputes and bloodshed in Arab countries," said 61-year-old Algerian pensioner Saeed Dherari.
"I hope that God will grace all Muslims with security and stability," said 75-year-old Ahmad Khader, who hails from the southern Syrian province of Daraa, where the country's uprising began.
"The regime is tyrannical and I pray for God to help the oppressed people," he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's embattled government.
Egyptian Ahmad Ali, who is performing hajj for the first time, prayed for peace in his country where hundreds have been killed in fighting between security forces and Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
"I pray for Egypt to enjoy security and stability and for the people to reach understanding and reconciliation," Ali said.
The hajj, which officially ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.
The pilgrims started the hajj journey on Sunday, moving out of the holy city of Mecca to nearby Mina, where most of them spent the night following the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, who performed the rituals 14 centuries ago.