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Muslim faithful climb Mount Arafat on Hajj's biggest day
MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Faithful Muslims began climbing Mount Arafat before dawn Wednesday on the pivotal day of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islam's holiest city.
Chanting in unison, row after row of pilgrims made their way on buses, cars and on foot to the sacred hill where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have received the last passage of Islam's holy book, the Koran, during his final sermon 14 centuries ago.
More than two million people are participating in this year's pilgrimage, including a record 1.3 million from countries other than Saudi Arabia, according to Saudi officials. The country's ruler, King Fahd, has ordered that every pilgrim leaving the kingdom at the end of the Hajj be given a copy of the Koran as a gift from him.
The pilgrims will spend the day on Mount Arafat until sunset, praying for forgiveness. Then they will come down for a three-day ritual of throwing stones at three pillars, copying Abraham's stoning of the devil, before completing their pilgrimage in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca. There they will circle the cube-shaped Kaaba, towards which Muslims face to pray.
The Kaaba is believed to rest on the spot where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son before God stayed his hand and substituted a ram. The Koran says the Kaaba is the oldest house of worship in the world and during the Hajj pilgrims circle it prayerfully seven times.
'Here to find happiness...win heaven'
A rocky hill on top of Mount Arafat, Jabal al-Rahma (Mountain of Mercy), was quickly filled with pilgrims Wednesday as people from about 100 countries jostled for good spots. Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the bright sun as temperatures were expected to reach 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit) by early afternoon. Saudi officials provided drinking water while fresh fruits, sandwiches, soft drinks and tea were on sale at roadside stands.
"I am here to find happiness in life and to win heaven after death," said Alaa Shamseddine of Ethiopia. "I have made lots of mistakes in the past. I hope my sins now will be cleared."
Another pilgrim, Ahmed Mustapha from Egypt, said "When so many Muslims and you all pray together, it makes the soul very happy."
Several deaths reported, despite security efforts
Saudi officials say this year's Hajj so far has been free of any serious incident such as those that have marred the pilgrimage in previous years. About 180 people were trampled to death in a stampede in 1998, more than 340 died in a fire in 1997 and in a 1990 stampede more than 1,400 pilgrims died in a tunnel leading to the sacred sites.
Authorities spent the past year planning for this year's pilgrimage, hoping to prevent a replay of such tragedies. Security and safety officials are scattered throughout the streets of Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. More than 9,000 medical personnel, 300 ambulances and three helicopters are on call for this year's Hajj. But despite these efforts, several deaths have been reported.
Two women from the Russian republic of Dagestan were killed and four people injured in a bus accident Tuesday and a Kuwaiti boy and his parents died in a car accident, according to The Associated Press.
At least two pilgrims were crushed in the crowd on March 7 as the Grand Mosque in Mecca was undergoing a ritual cleansing. Palestinian and Jordanian officials said at least three people from each of their countries were also crushed to death inside the Grand Mosque.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which has about 1 billion followers worldwide. All Muslims are required to take part in the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, if they are able to do so.
Correspondent Riz Khan, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Muslim faithful await start of Hajj's biggest day
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