MAKKAH (AFP) - Muslim pilgrims on Monday began ascending Mount Arafat for the climax of the annual hajj which brings together more than two million people from around the world.
A sea of worshippers scaled the rocky hill southeast of the holy city of Mecca for a day of prayers and reflection where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.
Some of the pilgrims -- men in white seamless garments and women in loose dresses -- pushed elderly relatives in wheelchairs on the second day of the hajj, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings.
A hot wind blew across the hill, also known as Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), and the surrounding plain after a downpour late Sunday. Many faithful could be seen sipping from bottles of water.
After sunset, the pilgrims will leave for nearby Muzdalifah where they will gather pebbles to perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil".
The ritual begins in earnest on Tuesday as Muslims observe the first day of Eid al-Azha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which marks the end of the hajj.
Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep for the three-day Eid al-Azha, a tribute to the prophet Ibraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Hazrat Ismael, his son.
They will consume some of the meat and give the rest to poor people unable to buy food.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.
Ceremony to change Ghilaf-e-Kaaba
Earlier, the annual ceremony to change Ghilaf-e-Kaaba was held at Masjid-e-Al-Haram.
At least 120kg pure gold, 100kg silver and 670kg pure silk have been used. Governor Makkah, Saudi officials and other significant personalities attended the ceremony.
The covering cloth of the Kaaba, known as Kiswa, is changed on 9th Zilhaj every year on the day of Arafat. It comprises of 47 parts with each of them 14-metre long and 95-metre wide.
World’s largest annual gatherings in a country
More than two million Muslims from around the globe started the hajj pilgrimage on Sunday in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings in a country undergoing unprecedented change.
Saudi Arabia has mobilised vast resources for the six-day journey, a pillar of Islam.
"It’s the dream of every Muslim to come here to Mecca," said Frenchman Soliman Ben Mohri.
"It’s the ultimate journey. What worries me is the return to my normal life. For the moment, I am in a dream," the 53-year old told AFP.
Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj journey to Islam’s holiest sites at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed for the pilgrimage, which was struck by its worst ever disaster three years ago when around 2,300 worshippers were crushed to death in a stampede.
This year, the Saudis have launched a "smart hajj" initiative, with apps to help pilgrims with everything from travel plans to medical care.
The interior ministry said on Saturday that the number of pilgrims arriving in Mecca had already surpassed the two million mark, mostly from abroad including large contingents from Egypt, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Wearing the simple white garb of the pilgrim, most of the faithful began moving on Sunday from Mecca to the nearby Mina valley.
They will spend the night there in fire-resistant tents in the desert, where temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Thousands of buses and vehicles carrying the pilgrims lined the eight kilometre (five-mile) road from Mecca to Mina.
Many pilgrims made the journey walking under the scorching sun, some carrying white or blue umbrellas.
For the Muslim faithful, hajj retraces the last steps of the Prophet Mohammed and also honours the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
It ends with the Eid al-Azha feast, which is marked by the slaughter of sheep, a tribute to Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son.