Muslims on Hajj in Saudi Arabia Start Ascent of Holy Site

November 15, 2010 - 7:05 AM

Hajj-Mecca

Thousands of tents housing Muslim pilgrims are crowded together in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 2.5 million visitors each year, making it the largest annual gathering of people in the world. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Nearly 3 million Muslims performing the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia began making their way up the rocky desert Mount Arafat on Monday, chanting that they have come to answer God's call.

The white-robed pilgrims began their ascent at dawn, covering the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat in an endless sea of white as their chants "Labyek Allah," or "Here I am, God, answering your calling," reverberated overhead.

The climb at Arafat is one of the cornerstones of the pilgrimage, which is required from every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their life time. It's the site where Islam's Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon and Muslims believe on this day the doors of heavens open to answer prayers and grant forgiveness.

As they began their climb from the tent-city in the valley, many of the pilgrims looked tired from lack of sleep, having spent the entire night praying. Charities and vendors along the way handed out food packages and umbrellas to shield the climbers from the harsh sun.

One of the pilgrims, Wassim Ahmad, from Mumbai, India, said this was his first hajj and that he felt like a child, reborn.

"Today is like judgment day," said the 29-year-old. "We have come to pray to God ... a new child has been born."

Alone and obviously on her first hajj, 46-year-old Egyptian, Um Sayed, kept asking people for directions.

"There is nothing greater than feeling that you are going to meet God," she said. "The whole body shivers."

Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa are the three stops on the pilgrims' journey during the hajj, as worshippers trace the steps of Prophet Muhammad.

The hajj draws millions of worshippers each year, the sheer numbers a challenge in preventing stampedes at holy sites, fires in pilgrim encampments and the spread of disease.

This year Saudi authorities have taken new measures to improve crowd management, including launching a new light-rail system to transport pilgrims between the shrines.