MINA, Saudi Arabia: Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims began to stone a pillar representing Satan in the Saudi holy city of Mina on Friday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Worshippers from 189 countries surrounded Jamrat al-Aqaba, the largest of three adjacent pillars, in the rite which they will continue at least until Saturday. The ritual marks the start of the Muslim holidays.
"I managed to throw pebbles at Jamrat al-Aqaba early in the morning when the place wasn't so crowded," said 47-year-old Malaysian pilgrim Abdullah Noor.
"My feelings are a mixture of happiness and sadness. I'm happy because I managed to reach this holy land -- a dream I have had for years," he said. "But I'm sad because I couldn't bring my family with me."
"This is the time to atone for the sins committed over the years," said Daud Baev, a 65-year-old Kazakh.
The ritual is an emulation of Ibrahim'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 his son, Ishmael.
Roads inside Mina and those leading to the city were choked with pilgrims trying to reach the camps set up to receive them according to their country of origin.
The pilgrims had stopped to collect stones overnight in Muzdalifah, another holy town that comes to life only during the five days of the annual hajj pilgrimage before heading to Mina valley.
Men and women were seen bending to the ground in Muzdalifah choosing their stones which they carried in empty water bottles or plastic bags. The stones must be slightly bigger than a chick pea.
Red Crescent and civil defence helicopters have been hovering over the area since the early morning hours, ready to deal with any incidents that might occur.
"God is greatest, God is greatest, no God but Allah," bellowed loudspeakers in Mina since the early hours as pilgrims repeated after them.
The stay in Mina used to mark the most dangerous phase of hajj for Saudi authorities as it was marred by deadly stampedes in the past as well as fires in tent camps.
In past years, however, tents have been fire-proofed while gas canisters and cooking are banned in the camps. The stoning area has been expanded to avoid overcrowding.
Saudi authorities have built a five-level structure around the three sites, allowing a smooth flow of pilgrims.
The authorities have also organised the devil-stoning this year, setting specific times of the day for each group of pilgrims to carry out the ritual.
After they carry out the stoning, pilgrims end their Ihram by shaving or cutting their hair for men while women trim the length of a finger-tip from one strand of hair.
Pilgrims then change back into normal clothing from white shrouds that symbolise the resurrection.
On the first day of the feast of sacrifice known as Eid al-Adha, pilgrims must also head to the holy city of Mecca to perform the Tawaf circumambulation around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped stone structure towards which Muslims worldwide face for prayer.
After the first stoning, pilgrims offer sacrifices by slaughtering a sheep and the meat is distributed to needy Muslims. This rite emulates Abraham who prepared to sacrifice his son before God provided a lamb in the boy's place at the last moment.
Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims have been officially registered this year. But hundreds of thousands more perform the pilgrimage without permits.
Interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki told AFP on Friday that so far "hajj has passed normally and in good manner," as no incidents have been reported.