MOUNT ARAFAT • The annual haj reached its high point as Muslims from across the world converged on a stony hill in Saudi Arabia, a year after the worst tragedy in the pilgrimage's history.
More than 1.8 million gathered from sunrise yesterday at the hill and a vast surrounding plain known as Mount Arafat, about 15km from Mecca.
Against a backdrop of distant, higher peaks, they squatted, stood, or climbed steps built into the hill while reciting ritual incantations.
They spent the most important day of the haj in prayer and reading from the Quran.
A non-stop flow disembarked from 18,000 buses that the authorities mobilised.
Others came on a train that connects the holy sites.
It's the most beautiful moment of my life. I am in the most beautiful place in the world, where... Muslims around the world dream of being.
EGYPTIAN ACCOUNTANT AHMED SALMAN
"It's the most beautiful moment of my life," said Egyptian accountant Ahmed Salman. "I am in the most beautiful place in the world, where... Muslims around the world dream of being."
From a distance, the hill appeared snowy white from the two-piece white garment, ihram, worn by male pilgrims.
Official figures issued late last Saturday said the total number of pilgrims had risen to 1.8 million.
After sunset, they will move to Muzdalifah to gather 49 pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil that begins today, in the last major rite of the haj.
During that ritual in Mina last year, on Sept 24, a stampede killed roughly 2,300 people who were on their way to throw their stones at the Jamarat Bridge.
Among the safety measures taken is the distribution of a bracelet that stores pilgrims' personal data.
Roads have also been widened in the Jamarat area, papers reported.
Helicopters monitored the crowd flow while, on the ground, police directed pedestrian movement yesterday.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, chairman of the haj committee, was in Mina to help supervise "the services being provided to the pilgrims", the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Iran's pilgrims were excluded from the haj after the country failed to agree on security and logistics with Saudi Arabia, so hundreds of thousands of Iranian faithful held an alternative pilgrimage last Saturday in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, according to a shrine official.