Saudi Arabia (AP) — More than 2 million Muslims raised their hands to heaven and chanted in unison Sunday as they hiked through a desert valley to the outskirts of Mecca in preparation for Islam’s annual sacred pilgrimage.
The journey through the eight-mile-long valley puts the pilgrims from around the globe in place for the start of hajj rituals on Monday. The march takes Muslims along the steps of the prophet Muhammad, who gave his last sermon on Mount Arafat in 632.
The hajj rituals begin with the circling of the Kaaba, the huge black cube in the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which Muslims around the world face when they offer their prayers five times daily.
On Monday, the faithful will move to Mount Arafat, offering prayers of repentance and asking for salvation and spiritual renewal. The next day, they carry out the symbolic stoning of the devil.
Saudi Arabia has taken extra precautions this year in an effort to prevent deadly stampedes that have killed hundreds during the stoning ritual. Two years ago, 244 people were trampled to death when the crowd panicked during the ritual.
Authorities have widened walkways to nearly 80 yards this year to reduce congestion.
Saudi television Sunday repeatedly broadcast instructions to the pilgrims to avoid forming in crowds or camping along the pathway.
The Saudis also have transformed three pillars representing the devil from tall obelisks to stone walls 85 feet long, allowing many more people to pelt them with pebbles at once. A religious fatwa also extended the hours permitted for the ritual.