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The BBC's Frank Gardner reports
"A sacred duty"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 20:26 GMT
Pilgrims descend from Mount Arafat
The Plain of Arafat
A sea of pilgrims arrives on the Plain of Arafat
More than two million Muslim pilgrims have descended from Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia after the central ritual of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

At sunset wave after wave of pilgrims, many on foot, made their way to Muzdalifah after a day of prayer and asking for forgiveness at Mount Arafat, the site where Prophet Mohammad delivered his final sermon 14 centuries ago.

At Muzdalifah, pilgrims pick up pebbles for the ritual stoning of three pillars that symbolise the devil.

This ritual begins on Thursday in the Mina valley, where pilgrims will celebrate the feast - the Eid al-Adha - during which pilgrims will slaughter sheep, commemorating Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son at God's request.

The cleansing of sins

Pilgrims who have performed the day of prayer and reading from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, at Arafat is believed to be cleansed of their sins.

"I am here to find happiness in life and to win a place in heaven after death. I have made lots of mistakes in the past. I hope my sins will now be cleared," said Ethiopian Alaa Shamseddine.

Mount Arafat
Those that can, climb mount Arafat to pray for forgiveness
"When so many Muslims gather and all pray together, it makes the soul very happy," said Egyptian pilgrim Ahmed Mustapha.

During the day, volunteers offered free water to the pilgrims, many of whom carried parasols to shelter them as temperatures reached 37 degrees Celsius (99 F).

Helicopters and ambulances were on hand to help those that suffered sunstroke.

The pilgrimage is a religious obligation on able bodied Muslims who can afford to perform it.

No security problems

Saudi officials say a record 1.25 million non-Saudi pilgrims have come to perform the Hajj this year.

The Emir of Mecca Prince Abdel Majeed announced on Wednesday that the ascent to Mount Arafat had passed with no significant security or health incidents.

Hajj disasters
1998 stampede kills 118
1997 fire kills 343
1994 stampede kills 270
1990 tunnel collapse kills 1,426
1987 clashes between demonstrating Iranians and police leave 402 dead
The Saudi organisers say they have spent more than $700m on safety measures to prevent accidents.

Gas cookers have been banned, fireproof tents have been installed, helicopters hover overhead and thousands of medical staff are on stand-by.

Three years ago, a fire swept through the same tented area, killing 350 people.

The following year a stampede on a crowded bridge killed more than 100 people.

So far the measures have largely paid off but last week two people were crushed to death in a stampede in Mecca.

The Saudis have also sought to keep the Hajj a religious rather than political event, although reports from Tehran say Iranian pilgrims have held a low-key protests attacking Israel and the United States.

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See also:

15 Mar 00 | Middle East
The Hajj in pictures
11 Mar 00 | Middle East
Saudis open huge slaughterhouse
18 Mar 99 | Middle East
What is the Hajj?
05 Nov 99 | Middle East
British consulate in Mecca
26 Aug 98 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia imposes pilgrimage limit
19 Mar 99 | Middle East
Saudi King pays for pilgrims
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