Muslim pilgrims gather for pinnacle of hajj in Saudi Arabia

AP , Wednesday 23 Sep 2015

A Muslim pilgrim prays on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015 during the hajj pilgrimage. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Islam's Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite. (Photo: AP)

Muslim pilgrims from around the world began gathering before dawn Wednesday in the valley of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia for a day of prayer that marks the pinnacle of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Some 2 million pilgrims will be packed should-to-shoulder for an emotional day. Many wept as they stretched their hands out toward the sky in supplication to ask for forgiveness and pray for loved ones.

It was on this day some 1,400 years ago that Islam's Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon from Mount Arafat during the hajj, calling for equality and for Muslims to unite.

Muslims believe prayer on this day at Mount Arafat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mecca, is their best chance to erase past sins and start anew.

The five-day hajj pilgrimage began Tuesday. To shed symbols of materialism, male pilgrims wear white terry cloth garments meant to symbolize humility and equality. Women forgo makeup and perfume, cover their heads and wear loose-fitting clothing.

Islam requires that able-bodied Muslims perform the hajj once in their lives. While following a route the Prophet Muhammad once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The hajj also includes circling Islam's holiest site the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca's Grand Mosque that observant Muslims around the world face in prayer five times a day.

The pilgrimage requires physically demanding purification rites and often walking long distances. Pilgrims with disabilities and the elderly are pushed in wheelchairs.

Saudi authorities say there are 1.4 million international visitors for the hajj this year. Some 600,000 pilgrims from the kingdom itself are also expected to take part.

Millions of Muslims save for years to make the journey.

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