3 Million Muslims Begin Hajj Pilgrimage

Associated Press
Sunday, December 7, 2008

MINA, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 6 -- Nearly 3 million pilgrims chanting prayers converged Saturday in a valley just outside the holy city of Mecca at the beginning of the five-day hajj pilgrimage, a lifelong dream for many Muslims.

The pilgrims, from about 100 countries, left Mecca after completing the first ritual of the hajj by circling the sacred Kaaba structure seven times inside the Grand Mosque, which Muslims across the world face during their five daily prayers.

Pilgrims in white robes piled into and on top of buses on their way to a ritual of prayer and reflection in Mina, three miles east of Mecca.

The journey caused massive traffic jams on roads to Mina, where pilgrims will spend the night in white, fireproof tents. Some pilgrims chose to walk the route.

The hajj, packed with symbolism and ritual, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to must perform it at least once in his or her lifetime.

Iranian pilgrim Muhammad Hossein Salem said he waited 10 years to make the journey. "Now, my dream has come true," he said.

Saudi Arabia has deployed 100,000 security personnel to keep order during the hajj. Thousands of them patrolled the route to Mina on foot and in vehicles.

The high point of the pilgrimage comes Sunday with prayers at Mount Arafat, a hill about 12 miles east of Mecca where prophet Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon 14 centuries ago. Muslims believe that the last passage of their holy book, the Koran, was revealed to Muhammad during this sermon.

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