In Pictures: The Hajj pilgrimage

An estimated two million Muslims from around the world have gathered in Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage.

| | Arts & Culture, Saudi Arabia, Middle East

About two million Muslims from around the world have gathered near Mecca in Saudi Arabia in an act of faith and repentance for the Hajj pilgrimage. One of the world's largest annual gatherings and a central pillar of the Islamic faith, the five-day spiritual journey is meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God.

Following a route that the Prophet Muhammad once walked, the rites also trace the footsteps of the Biblical prophets Abraham and Ishmael. The pilgrimage is physically demanding and involves performing several acts, such as circumbulating seven times the cube-shaped Kaaba, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham 4,000 years ago.

Pilgrims flock to Arafat, also known as the Mount of Mercy, after spending a night of meditation and introspection in the tent city of Mina, which marks the first leg of the pilgrimage. It was at Arafat about 1,400 years ago that the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. The faithful believe that on this day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins can be forgiven.

Pilgrims then make their way to Muzdalifah, where they spend the night under the stars and gather pebbles to perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil". The ritual is an emulation of Abraham's stoning of the devil at the three spots where he is said to have appeared trying to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God's order to sacrifice Ishmael.

All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear a seamless two-piece white garment, symbolising a state of purity and emphasising equality. Women also generally wear white, exposing only their faces and hands.

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