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Muslims begin hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia

  • Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as pray inside the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23, 2012. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as pray inside the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23, 2012. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (Associated Press)
  • A Muslim pilgrim cries as he prays at sunrise on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims head to pray outside Namira mosque in Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the early hours on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the early hours on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • A large tent encampment covers the Plain of Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct 25. 2012, as millions converge for the annual Hajj, the most important pilgrimage of the Islamic faith. Oct 25. was is Arafat Day, the second day of the Hajj pilgrimage on which it is said that the religion had been perfected and the following day is the first day of the major Islamic Holiday of Eid ul-Adha. (Associated Press/Saudi Press Agency)A large tent encampment covers the Plain of Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct 25. 2012, as millions converge for the annual Hajj, the most important pilgrimage of the Islamic faith. Oct 25. was is Arafat Day, the second day of the Hajj pilgrimage on which it is said that the religion had been perfected and the following day is the first day of the major Islamic Holiday of Eid ul-Adha. (Associated Press/Saudi Press Agency)
  • Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims pray near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 25, 2012. Saudi authorities say about 3.4 million pilgrims — some 1.7 million of them from abroad — have arrived in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for this year's pilgrimage. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims hug each other as they celebrate after casting stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims hug each other as they celebrate after casting stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • A Muslim pilgrim has his head ritually shaved after he cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)A Muslim pilgrim has his head ritually shaved after he cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • A Muslim pilgrim has his head ritually shaved after he cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)A Muslim pilgrim has his head ritually shaved after he cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • Youssef, 3, a Muslim pilgrim from Egypt, walks with his grandfather to cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of  Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. (Associated Press)Youssef, 3, a Muslim pilgrim from Egypt, walks with his grandfather to cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. (Associated Press)
  • A Muslim pilgrim collects stones to cast at a stone pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)A Muslim pilgrim collects stones to cast at a stone pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • In this image made while zooming the camera lens, Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)In this image made while zooming the camera lens, Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar, symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," a rite of the annual hajj, the Islamic faith's most holy pilgrimage, in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26, 2012. The five-day rituals of Hajj began on Oct. 24 when millions arrived in the holy city. (Associated Press)
  • Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as pray inside the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23, 2012. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws three million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (Associated Press)Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as pray inside the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 23, 2012. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws three million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (Associated Press)
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MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Hours before sunrise Thursday, thousands of Muslims from around the world stood in the dark on a rocky desert hill, preparing for prayers on the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a central pillar of their faith.

Muslims believe that prayer on Mount Arafat is their best chance to erase past sins and start anew.

The four-day hajj features millions packed shoulder to shoulder in prayer and supplication. According to Islam, each able-bodied believer must make the pilgrimage once.

"Let all your feuds be abolished," the Prophet Muhammad said in his last sermon on the hill called Jabal al-Rahman, Mountain of Mercy, in the area of Mount Arafat. "You must know that every Muslim is the brother of every Muslim ... between Muslims there are no races and no tribes ... do not oppress and do not be oppressed."

Some 1,400 years later, Muslims believe that, on this day and at this place, the gates of heaven are open for prayers to be answered and sins to be forgiven.

"I have feelings that cannot be described in words. We thank God for the chance to perform the hajj here and visit God's house in Mecca," said Mustafa Daama, 27, from Mauritania.

On other parts of the mountain, Muslims chanted in unison, "Labayk Allahuma Labayk," or "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am."

Muslims believe the hajj traces the paths of the Prophets Abraham, Ishmael and Muhammad. The hajj typically concludes as it began, with a set of rituals at the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca's Grand Mosque that observant Muslims around the world face in prayer five times a day.

Technology and the modern world have changed the atmosphere surrounding the hajj.

For centuries, the rocky mountain was a quiet place for contemplation and serene prayers. Now it is crowded with pilgrims pushing and shoving to take pictures with their iPads and mobile phones.

Adding to the tumult, ultraconservative men with loudspeakers yelled at pilgrims to stop crowding the hill, saying the whole area of Mount Arafat is sacred and that men and women should avoid the inevitable brushes of physical contact.

Ignoring their calls, many pilgrims were uploading their pictures online from the hilltop to share instantly with friends and family, while others used touch screens to read the Quran, rather than carrying it in printed form.

Casually dressed photographer Bandar Maarouf, 22, from Yemen stood out from the sea of pilgrim men who wear white seamless garments and seamless sandals meant to represent equality and unity.

Wearing a bright pink shirt, low-slung jeans and a hat turned sideways, he was taking photos for pilgrims at around $3 apiece. His camera prints the photos on the spot. He expected to sell at least 400 photos on Thursday.

"This season helps a person live. (I earn) some from here and there, and God is always giving," he said.

Some of the pilgrims' prayers had to do with current events.

Carrying a large Sudanese flag, Mohamed Ali said he was praying for an end to the civil war in Syria and victory for rebels over President Bashar Assad.

"Victory is close, God willing," Mr. Ali said.

"May God bring Muslims together and help us unify, and help our Christian brothers, even those who made the film against the Prophet Muhammad," he said, referring to a movie that sparked violent protests last month around the Islamic world.

Others had more personal prayers.

An Egyptian mother of three, Nadia Abdel Aziz, appealed emotionally to God to make her children behave more kindly toward her. The 65-year-old widow said she was able to perform the hajj with the help of donations from a mosque in Cairo.

"O God! I want my kids to come and see me and be sensitive toward me, as I see with other families," she cried.

With her arms outstretched, she begged God for salvation, wiping a stream of tears from her face.

Saudi officials say about 3.4 million Muslims from all corners of the world are making the pilgrimage this year.

A sea of millions dressed in white, some waving their national flags, stretched for miles in the area of Mount Arafat, many chanting in unison, their prayers echoing.

Mount Arafat, about 12 miles east of Mecca, is a required stop for Muslims during the hajj.

As the sun and temperatures rose Thursday, tens of thousands of pilgrims began climbing the Mountain of Mercy.

By sunset, pilgrims head to Muzdalifa, where Muslims believe prophets before Muhammad once prayed. They collect pebbles there and then walk or drive to nearby Mina for a symbolic stoning of the devil that begins Friday and marks the start of Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, when Muslims slaughter lambs to feed the hungry.

Hajj rules — based on centuries of interpretation of the Sunna, the traditions of Muhammad — are extremely elaborate. Pilgrims must all gather at certain sites at specific times. Some rites are repeated, others are partially repeated, and some performed only once.

Many pilgrims being their journey in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina with a visit to Muhammad's mosque, where he is buried. They then head to Mecca and perform a set of pre-hajj rituals, including circling the Kaaba counterclockwise with their hearts tilted toward it — the same rituals that conclude the hajj for many.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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