Chanting “Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest),” worshippers from 189 countries advanced in waves around Jamrat al-Aqaba, the largest of three adjacent pillars, in the rite that will continue at least until Saturday.
The ritual marks the start of one of the most sacred Muslim holidays.
“I managed to throw pebbles at Jamrat al-Aqaba early in the morning when the place wasn’t so crowded,” said 47-year-old Malaysian Abdullah Noor.
“My feelings are a mixture of happiness and sadness. I’m happy because I managed to reach this holy land — a dream I have had for years,” he said. “But I’m sad because I couldn’t bring my family with me.”
Pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the "Jamarat" ritual, the stoning of Satan, in Mina near the holy city of Makkah, on October 26, 2012. AFP
Daud Baev, a 65-year-old Kazakh, said: “This is the time to atone for the sins committed over the years.”
The ritual is an emulation of Ibrahim’s stoning of the devil at the three spots where he is said to have appeared trying to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
Roads inside Mina and those leading to the city were choked with pilgrims trying to reach the camps set up to receive them according to their country of origin.
The pilgrims had stopped to collect stones overnight in Muzdalifah, another holy town that comes to life only during the five days of the annual Haj pilgrimage, before heading to Mina valley.
Men and women were seen bending to the ground to choose their stones which they carried in empty water bottles or in plastic bags. The stones must be slightly larger than a chick pea.
Red Crescent and civil defence helicopters have been overflying the area since the early morning.
“God is greatest, God is greatest, no God but Allah,” bellowed loudspeakers in Mina as pilgrims repeated the words.
The stay in Mina used to mark the most dangerous phase of the Haj for the Saudi authorities as it has been marred by deadly stampedes in the past as well as by fires in tent camps.
In past years, however, tents have been fire-proofed and gas canisters and cooking are now banned in the camps. The stoning area has also been expanded to avoid overcrowding.
Saudi authorities have built a five-level structure around the three sites, allowing for a smooth flow of pilgrims.
King Abdullah bin Abdualziz, who performed the vows in Mina, discussed instability in the region with officials and urged security officers to “act against those who would dare harm the security, unity and sovereignty” of the kingdom.
According to the authorities, 168,000 police officers and civil defence personnel were mobilised for the hajj this year.
For this year’s devil-stoning, the authorities organised specific times of day for each group of pilgrims to carry out the ritual.
After they stone the pillars, pilgrims end their Ihram by shaving or cutting their hair for men while women trim the length of a finger-tip from one strand of hair.
Ihram is a state in which pilgrims wear special clothing — two-piece white seamless garments for men and any loose dress for women, who completely cover themselves except for their hands and faces.
Pilgrims then change back into normal clothing from white shrouds that symbolise the resurrection.
On the first day of the feast of sacrifice known as Eid al-Adha, pilgrims must also head to the holy city of Makkah to perform the Tawaf circumambulation around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped stone structure towards which Muslims worldwide face for prayer.
After the first stoning, pilgrims offer sacrifices by slaughtering a sheep whose meat is distributed to needy Muslims. This rite emulates Abraham who prepared to sacrifice his son before God provided a lamb in the boy’s place at the last moment.
Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims officially registered for this year’s Haj, but hundreds of thousands more perform the pilgrimage without permits.
Interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki told AFP on Friday that so far “Haj has passed normally and in good manner,” with no incidents reported.
Health ministry spokesman Khaled Mirghalani also said “no outbreak” of any illness had been recorded at the pilgrimage.
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