Muslim pilgrims retrace prophet's path as haj starts
By Inal Ersan
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslims began the haj pilgrimage Saturday, heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca to follow the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.
Over the past week, a sea of worshipers swept into Mecca, where authorities have mounted a vast security operation to avert any militant attacks, deadly stampedes or political activities that could embarrass Saudi Arabia.
"It's a bit like drinking from the sea -- no matter how much you drink your thirst is never quenched. That's why I come over and over again," said Hassan al-Sayed, an Egyptian pilgrim.
Some pilgrims walked, carrying their bags, while others took buses moving slowly through the crowds to the Mina area east of Mecca. Men were dressed in simple white robes, marking a state of ihram, or ritual purity.
"It's a beautiful feeling, very beautiful, especially when you see the Kaaba," said a Moroccan woman called Sanna after visiting the ancient cubic shrine at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. "I hope I can return again, with God's help."
Late Saturday pilgrims on foot, in buses and some in wheelchairs head to Mount Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) outside the city, for the climax of haj Sunday. When they arrive they will spend hours in prayer and asking for forgiveness.
"I pray to God to plant mercy in people's hearts," said 55-year-old carpenter Muhammad Hassan as he walked with a carpet rolled up over his shoulder, trying to find a place to sleep.
The Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, begins on Monday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil. Continued...