By Agence France-Presse
Almost 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims took part Sunday in the “stoning of the devil”, the last major ritual of the annual hajj pilgrimage that in previous years led to deadly stampedes.
Carrying pebbles in the scorching heat, worshippers made their way across Mina Valley near Mecca in western Saudi Arabia to symbolically “humiliate” the devil.
Under the watchful eyes of security forces, waves of pilgrims clad in white threw seven stones each at a pillar symbolising Satan.
“It is hot, I drink a lot of water and I am still hidden under my umbrella,” said Jaker Akjar, a 48-year-old Indian pilgrim, sporting a henna-dyed beard.
This was Akjar’s first hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam that every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.
Muslim tradition holds that pilgrims must throw seven stones each at a pillar representing Satan on the first day of Eid al-Adha, following two days of prayer and meditation.
“I am well equipped and ready” to fight the devil, said Umar, a 33-year-old Saudi engineer, carrying pebbles in a plastic bottle.
– Tight security –
The hajj, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, this year officially drew 2.49 million pilgrims to Islam’s holiest sites in Saudi Arabia.
The stoning ritual is not without risk, as millions of pilgrims converge on a tight space and the pebbles often miss their mark amid the screams of worshippers.
Mina has been the site of deadly stampedes such as in 2015 when more than 2,300 pilgrims were crushed, trampled or suffocated to death.
Authorities have since reinforced safety and security measures.
Tens of thousands of security forces, including police and civil defence, have been deployed for hajj, according to Saudi authorities.
Ambulances are mobilised to assist the faithful, cameras follow their movement and helicopters constantly fly over the valley of white tents that only comes alive once a year during the hajj.
Large fans sprayed water over the crowd amid soaring temperatures.
– Festival of sacrifice –
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made the trip to Mina on Saturday and was seen on state-run television observing worshippers from the window of a high-rise.
The monarch on Sunday held talks in Mina with Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, state media said.
Yemen’s southern separatists on Saturday seized the presidential palace in the second city Aden, a move decried by Hadi’s government as a UAE-backed coup.
“We pray to Allah almighty to… accept their pilgrimage and worship,” King Salman tweeted on Sunday, which marked the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.
Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep for the three-day holiday in tribute to the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God at the last moment spared Ishmael, his son.
They consume some of the meat and give the rest to poor people unable to buy food.
Pilgrims can purchase coupons from the Saudi government, which organises the slaughter and freezing of the meat to avoid public health problems.
After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform a final “tawaf” or circling of the Kaaba.
The Kaaba is a cube structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth.