- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Muslims prayed yesterday on the desert mountain where the prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon, seeking forgiveness of their sins in a key ritual of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Nearly 3 million pilgrims flooded into a sprawling tent city at Mount Arafat, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Lines of buses, with pilgrims riding on the roofs, packed highways leading into the site, while others on foot swarmed between the vehicles.

Even before sunrise, lines of pilgrims made their way up Jebal Rahmah, Arabic for “mountain of mercy,” to perform prayers on the rocky hill on the edge of the site. A group of Indonesian women clambered with difficulty over the boulders, past handless beggars asking for alms.

At the top, crowds raised their palms toward the sky as tour leaders with loudspeakers led them in prayer.

The prayers at Mount Arafat are the first major rite in the five-day hajj, which began Thursday. The faithful spend the day in prayer and meditation and reading the Koran.

They also spend it getting used to life in what amounts to a moving city — a population the size of Chicago or Madrid that will spend nearly every night in a different location around Mecca.

“Thank God, the harder it is, the more blessings it brings,” said Selim Idris, a burly, bearded Yemeni who was stripped to the waist as he set up his tent on the side of the road. His wife, her face covered by a black veil, sat among their bags of blankets and canned goods, waiting for their temporary home to be completed.

Along the streets were more tents and hawkers selling groceries, meals of rice and chicken, prayer beads and cell-phone cards.

The vast majority of pilgrims stayed in ready-made fireproof tents erected by the Saudi government over the nearly 8-square-mile site. The tent city is sectioned off by country.

Saudi Arabia sets quotas for each nation — 1,000 pilgrims per 1 million population.

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