The annual pilgrimage, or hajj, began in earnest Wednesday morning, with hundreds of thousands of worshippers heading to Mina valley, where a city of white, fireproof tents awaited them. In buses and on bus roofs, the pilgrims snarled traffic in central Mecca and on the outskirts of the city. Tens of thousands of pilgrims squatted on sidewalks on the main road to Mina, many using umbrellas to ward off the scorching sun.
Entire families, some with toddlers and infants, sat on prayer mats spread out in the open, eating food bought from fast food outlets. Huge billboards advertising Coca-Cola, Pepsi and House of Donuts towered over the pilgrims amid the din from the engines of refrigerator trucks. Thousands of security men patrolled the route to Mina on foot and in vehicles, and helicopters hovered over the site. Many more plainclothes policemen are on duty.
"May God make Islam victorious and defeat our enemies," said Ahmed Magbour, an Egyptian pilgrim who teaches in a school for the deaf in a remote Saudi province. "May He crush our enemies," said Magbour, who is performing the hajj with his wife and 18-month-old son.
There were also calls for peace. "I hope to God almighty to bring us peace and return Palestine to its rightful people," said Ahmed Ali Ahmed, another pilgrim.
This year's pilgrimage comes amid the tension prevailing in the Muslim world following the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-led war against terror, regarded by many Muslims as a war against Islam. Saudi exile Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaida network are the chief suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
On Thursday, the pilgrims will move farther south from Mecca toward Mount Arafat, where they'll offer prayers and meditate in a ritual that has been widely interpreted as a foretaste of Judgment Day. The ritual at Arafat is defined by the pilgrims' chant of "at thy service, my God, at thy service" and signals the climax of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, a duty that every able-bodied Muslim should perform at least once in a lifetime if he or she can afford it.
Mount Arafat is where Muhammad, Islam's seventh century prophet, delivered his last sermon in A.D. 632, three months before his death. The ritual there begins at noon and lasts until just after nightfall, when the pilgrims begin a trek to nearby Muzdalifah, where they'll collect pebbles for the pilgrimage's next phase - the symbolic stoning of the devil.
The devil is represented by three pillars in Mina, just to the north in the direction of Mecca. After the ritual, pilgrims may celebrate the start of Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, by slaughtering a camel, a cow or a ram.
For one pilgrim, Iraqi Raheem Yassin, going on this year's hajj means time outside the confines of the refugee camp he has shared with 5,000 Iraqis in northern Saudi Arabia since they fled Iraq shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. "In am going to pray for my freedom," 41-year-old Yassin said.