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AP PHOTOS: Pilgrims start hajj in Saudi Arabia

More than 2 million Muslims from nearly 200 countries gathered around a hill in Saudi Arabia on Monday, marked by a small white pillar, joined in their faith and desire to purify their souls at the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

It is here, in Mount Arafat where the pillar stands to mark the location of the Mountain of Mercy, known in Arabic as Jabal al-Rahma. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon atop the hill to tens of thousands of followers, calling on Muslims to unite.

Some 1,400 years later, countless Muslims have made the journey to Mount Arafat as part of elaborate and physically demanding purification rites of hajj. Muslims believe the rituals, which start in Mecca and culminate at Mount Arafat, also trace the footsteps of the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.

The culminating moment of hajj is spent on Mount Arafat. It is an emotional experience for pilgrims because it is here, on this rocky desert hill, where they believe the gates of heaven are open for prayers to be answered and all past sins to be forgiven. Men and women alike openly weep, their hands stretched out in prayer and supplication as they reaffirm their faith.

Many can be heard repeating the phrase "Labayk Allahuma Labayk," or "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am."

For many Muslims, the trek to Mount Arafat is itself the answer to a lifetime of prayers. Hajj is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform hajj once in their lives.

For many of the pilgrims it's also the first and only time they board an airplane or travel abroad. Most come from African, South Asian and Middle East countries where poverty runs high. They have saved for years for this pilgrimage, where men are not distinguished by their wealth or affiliations.

As part of the ablution of hajj, Muslims must forgo vanity and sexual intercourse for the four-day pilgrimage.

Men dress in seamless white terrycloth garments meant to symbolize the equality of mankind and a return to God. Women also look inward rather than to their appearances by giving up perfume, makeup and fashion for long, loose clothing and a headscarf.

Syrian pilgrim Mohammed Firas has come to hajj without his children. They were killed in Syria's civil war, he says, a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

"I pray to God on this great day to swiftly lift our country's suffering," he said.

Pilgrims are also taking extra precautions this year, with many wearing face masks due to concerns over a new respiratory virus centered in the Arabian Peninsula. The virus has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year, though Saudi officials say no cases of the coronavirus infection have been detected among pilgrims.

Muslims around the world who are not on the pilgrimage traditionally fast in solidarity for the day, abstaining from food and water. Around sunset, as Muslims break their fast, the pilgrims on hajj leave Mount Arafat and head eight kilometers (five miles) to Muzdalifa, where they collect a handful of pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil that begins on Tuesday, marking the start of the three-day Eid al-Adha feast.

Here is a gallery of images from Mount Arafat by AP Photographer Amr Nabil.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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Follow AP photographers and photo editors on Twitter: http://apne.ws/15Oo6jo

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