Image: A Muslim pilgrim prays on a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
A Muslim pilgrim prays on the Mountain of Mercy on the Plain of Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/15/2010 4:45:47 AM ET 2010-11-15T09:45:47

Nearly three million Muslims performing the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia began making their way up the rocky desert Mount Arafat on Monday, chanting that they have come to answer God's call.

The white-robed pilgrims began their ascent at the crack of dawn, covering the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat in an endless sea of white as their chants "Labyek Allah," or "Here I am, God, answering your calling," reverberated overhead.

The climb at Arafat is one of the cornerstones of the pilgrimage, which is required from every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lifetime.

It's the site where Islam's Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon and Muslims believe on this day the doors of heaven open to answer prayers and grant forgiveness.

As they began their climb from the tent-city in the valley, many of the pilgrims looked tired from lack of sleep, having spent the entire night praying.

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Charities and vendors along the way handed out food packages and umbrellas to shield the climbers from the harsh sun.

'Like judgment day'
One of the pilgrims, Wassim Ahmad, from Mumbai, India, said this was his first hajj and that he felt like a child, reborn.

"Today is like judgment day," said the 29-year-old. "We have come to pray to God ... a new child has been born."

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Alone and obviously on her first hajj, 46-year-old Egyptian, Um Sayed, kept asking people for directions.

"There is nothing greater than feeling that you are going to meet God," she said. "The whole body shivers."

Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa are the three stops on the pilgrims' journey during the hajj, as worshippers trace the steps of Prophet Muhammad.

Islam is now embraced by a quarter of the world's population and many wait for years to get a visa.

Despite this, the hajj draws millions of worshippers each year and the sheer numbers present a challenge in preventing stampedes at holy sites, fires in pilgrim encampments and the spread of disease.

Saudi Arabia has worked hard to improve facilities to ease the flow of pilgrims. In 2006, 362 people were crushed to death.

To minimize the risk of overcrowding and to lessen congestion on the roads the authorities are for the first time operating a Chinese-built train that will call at hajj sites.

Pilgrim train
The $1.8 billion railway project will transport 180,000 passengers this year, Habib Zein Al Abideen, assistant minister for municipal and rural affairs, said.

"We will have a capacity of 72,000 passengers per hour next year. This year we operate at 35 percent capacity. Next year we could have 500,000 to 600,000 passengers," Abideen said.

Due to its limited capacity, the train will this year only carry residents of Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Arabs and next year will open to other nationalities, he said. "It will be big improvement. Tickets cost only a symbolic amount," said Walid al-Mushawer, a Saudi pilgrim.

There has been concern about possible attacks by al-Qaida during the hajj.

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Asked whether the terror group might stage an attack on the hajj or use the event to try and get fighters from Yemen into the kingdom, Saudi Arabia interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, said: "We cannot rule out any operation but we are ready to foil it."

However, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula issued a statement on an Islamist website often used by militants saying it was "against any crimes against pilgrims ... Hajj is a pillar of Islam and we are most eager (not to spill) the blood of Muslims, wherever they may be."

In August 2009, an AQAP suicide bomber tried to kill Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who heads Saudi Arabia's anti-terrorism campaign and is a member of the Saudi royal family.

In its statement, AQAP also condemned the U.S.-Saudi intelligence cooperation that led to the discovery of the parcel bomb plot.

"What proves that the Al Saud cooperates with and has full allegiance to the Americans and Jews is that they informed them about the explosive parcels, which were destined for the Jews and Americans," it said in the statement.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Pilgrimage to Mecca

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  1. Thousands of tents housing Muslim pilgrims are crowded together in Mina during the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, Nov. 17. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 2.5 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (Hassan Ammar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tents erected for pilgrims dot a plain in Mina. More than 2 million pilgrims began the final rituals of the hajj ahead of their massive exodus from Islam's holiest city. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Saudi police official monitors pilgrims on screens at a security center in the tent city of Mina. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Muslim pilgrims leave the area of the Grand Mosque after their final walk around the Kaaba in the Saudi holy city of Mecca on Nov. 16. The cube-shaped Kaaba is Islam's most sacred site; pilgrims walk around the building multiple times as part of the Hajj. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Muslim pilgrims head to perform the Jamarat ritual, the symbolic stoning of Satan, in Mina near Mecca on the third day of the hajj. Muslims worldwide were marking the Eid al-Adha festival with animal sacrifices on Nov. 16. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Muslim pilgrims shave their heads after performing the Jamarat ritual, the symbolic stoning of Satan, in Mina on Nov. 16. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Muslim pilgrims gather to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan, which is part of a pilgrimage rite, in Mina on Nov. 16. (Mohammed Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. As a Muslim pilgrim reads the holy book of Quran while other male pilgrims pray on Gebel Rahmah (Mount of Mercy) in Arafat on Nov. 15. The Mount of Mercy is where the Prophet Mohammed gave a sermon summorizing the message of Islam which came near the end of his mission to deliver the words of Allah. More than 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to congregate in the Plains of Arafat. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat, southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca on Nov. 15. Pilgrims flooded into the Arafat plain from Mecca and Mina before dawn for a key ritual around the site where prophet Mohammed gave his farewell sermon on this day in the Islamic calendar 1,378 years ago. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Muslim pilgrims pray at Namirah Mosque in Arafat during the most important ritual of the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Nov. 15. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Muslim pilgrims leave an autograph at Mount Arafat, southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Muslim pilgrims pray at Mount Arafat. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A Muslim pilgrim walks with his son along the road in the Mina valley three miles east of Mecca on Nov. 14. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Muslim pilgrims take a rest after the noon prayer in Mina near Mecca on Nov. 14. (Hassan Ammar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Pilgrims rest in front of a wall mural depicting the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque upon their arrival to Mina, near Mecca during the hajj Nov. 14. The words on the mural read: "Complete the hajj and umrah for god." (Mohammed Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Sheep are fed at a livestock market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 14. Muslims across the world prepared to celebrate the annual festival of Eid al-Adha or the Festival of Sacrifice, which marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, with the slaughter of goats, sheep and cattle in commemoration of the Prophet Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to show obedience to Allah. (Ahmad Masood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Pilgrims look at a map as they arrive at the Mina valley three miles east of Mecca on Nov. 14. The passage to Mina marks the official launch of the hajj on the eighth day of the Muslim calendar month of Dhul Hijja. The day is known as Tarwiah (Watering) as pilgrims in the past stopped at Mina to water their animals and stock up for the trip to Mount Arafat. (Amer Hilabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Pilgrims sit atop a vehicle on their way to Mina on Nov. 14. (Mohammed Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A pilgrim reads the Muslim holy book or Koran in the Mina valley on Nov. 14. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pilgrims walk on top of Noor mountain, where the Hiraa cave is located, overlooking Mecca late on Nov 13. According to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed received his first message to preach Islam while praying in the cave. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Two pilgrims pray on the Ghar Heraa mountain in Mecca on Nov. 13. During the hajj, pilgrims dress in simple white robes, marking ihram, or ritual purity. Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, should be carried out at least once in a lifetime, if a person can afford it. The pilgrimage to Mecca occurs from the eighth to the 12th day of the last month of the Islamic calendar. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Tens of thousands of pilgrims move around the Kaaba, the black cube seen at center, inside the Grand Mosque, during the hajj in Mecca on Nov. 13. The buildiing is said to have been erected by the Prophet Abraham. (Hassan Ammar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Pilgrims reach out to touch the gold door of the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque during the hajj in Mecca Nov. 13. (Hassan Ammar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A pilgrim looks at Mecca from the top of Noor mountain on Nov. 13. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Grand Mosque is seen from the top of Noor mountain overlooking Mecca late on Nov. 12. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A man stands watching a newly opened metro light rail in Mecca on Nov. 2. The Chinese-built monorail project will link Mecca with the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, and will operate for the first time during the hajj this month to ferry Saudi nationals who will take part in the upcoming annual Muslim pilgrimage. (Amer Hilabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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