MOUNT ARAFAT: Muslims began a mass movement Thursday out of the holy city of Mecca towards nearby Mina and Mount Arafat in western Saudi Arabia, beginning the annual hajj pilgrimage.
A pillar of the Islamic faith, this year’s hajj comes with Saudi authorities striving to protect pilgrims from two deadly viruses, Ebola and the MERS coronavirus.
It is also taking place against the backdrop of widespread revulsion among Muslims towards Islamic State group jihadists.
Saudi Arabia and four other Arab nations have joined Washington in air strikes in Syria against the militants, who have declared a “caliphate” straddling that country and Iraq where they have committed a spate of atrocities.
Authorities say close to 1.4 million believers have come from 163 nations to follow the 1,400-year-old tradition of Prophet Mohammed, alongside pilgrims from Saudi Arabia.
“It is a beautiful feeling,” said Aziza Yousfy, 60, from Algeria, before leaving Mecca.
Seeing the nearby Mina Valley and Mount Arafat “has always been a dream for me”, she said.
Mount Arafat is where Prophet Mohammed gave his final sermon after leading his followers on the hajj.
Perhaps a few hundred had already reached Mount Arafat on Thursday evening.
They carried suitcases and other luggage among thousands of white tents which stood ready on a vast plain to provide temporary homes for the multitude.
Men arrived wearing a seamless two-piece white garment, ihram, symbolising a state of purity and emphasising their unity regardless of social status or nationality.
Women also generally wear white, exposing only their faces and hands.
Many pilgrims set up their own colourful tents while small children in ihram ran about. Others simply placed rugs among the shrubs and slept after their journey from Mecca.
Idris Abdul Malik, who reached Mount Arafat after a 24-hour journey from battle-scarred Benghazi, Libya, said “the privilege of visiting this holy land” made the difficulty of his journey meaningless.
“We are very lucky that we will be on Mount Arafat on a Friday… We hope God accepts our prayers.
“Prophet Mohammed has said that Friday is the best day the sun rises on.”