After five days of exhaustion and hardships, Muslim pilgrims were saddened to see the annual hajj come to a close Friday, ending what for many is a spiritual high point of their lives.
"Bidding farewell is hard," said Afaf al-Nuweihi, her voice choking with emotion. "I wish I could stay longer — in a place of worship where you pray and get closer to God."
Al-Nuweihi, a 61-year-old retired teacher from Egypt, spent her nights during the hajj sleeping on roadsides in her tent and her days moving from ritual to ritual with some 3 million other pilgrims. Still, she is ecstatic.
"I feel I am born again. Hajj is all about enduring hardship and suffering in order to wash away our sins," she said. "I hope God will give me strength to sustain my hajj spirituality after I get back home because it's going to be difficult for me to come back again."
Amina Hallaq, a 47-year old Syrian, sat on a plastic mat on the pavement.
"I'd be even happy if we could stay at least another week," she said. "Believe me, I am sad to be leaving."
Saudis announce arrests
After performing the ritual of stoning pillars that represent the devil in Mina on Friday, pilgrims proceeded to the nearby holy city of Mecca to bid "farewell" to the Kaaba by circling it seven times in the final rite of the hajj. Muslims around the world face the cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth during the five daily prayers.
The pilgrimage ended without any major incidents, but even as the pilgrims were preparing to journey back to their countries Friday, the Interior Ministry announced it had arrested a group of militants plotting to disrupt the hajj with attacks on the holy sites.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki said the arrests came about a week ago but gave no further details on the number or identity of those arrested. Saudi-owned satellite television station Al-Arabiya described them as Saudis.
Thousands milled through the massive four-story mosque in the center of Mecca housing the Kaaba and completed the final steps of their pilgrimage with more than a hint of sadness.
"It is a difficult and bitter thing," Fadhel Abdallah, a 33-year-old Yemeni petroleum engineer, said as he sat in the mosque reading his Koran. "The atmosphere here is so spiritual that one cannot experience it anywhere else."
He said he had left behind the anxiety and stress that plagued him at home.
Above the Kaaba, on the vast mosque's third level, two Pakistani friends watched the slow, hypnotic movement of the faithful around the courtyard.
"When you simply look at the Kaaba you feel rewarded by God," said Usman Haidar, a 32-year-old in the Pakistani army, who sported a long, luxuriant beard. "It is difficult to leave this place, anyone who comes here is the luckiest person because God has brought them here."
His companion, Nadim Haq, a 43-year-old businessman, said that pilgrims always feel lonely when they depart "because they leave part of themselves behind."
'I am flying on angel's wings'
Friday is also the last day of the three-day holiday of Eid al-Adha, marked by Muslims around the world.
On the last day of the hajj, pilgrims also walk the distance between hills in Safa and Marwa, re-enacting the search by Abraham's wife, Hagar, for water for her infant son Ishmael in the desert. After her seventh run, the spring known as Zamzam emerged miraculously under Ishmael's feet.
"I feel like I am flying on an angel's wings," said Abbas Ibrahimi, a 50-year-old Iranian teacher. "I feel my feet are not on the ground."
"Can there be any better place than here?" interjected Gol-Abroo Qazizadeh, 67, a fellow Iranian.
"I'm honored to be destined to come here. My son died six months ago and I got a chance to pray for his soul in God's House," Qazizadeh said, referring to the Kaaba.