MINA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – A human tide of pilgrims carrying bags of pebbles descended on the Mina valley Tuesday to symbolically stone Satan on the third day of the hajj, as Muslims worldwide marked the Eid al-Adha festival with animal sacrifices.
Small pebbles whizzed above heads as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims rushed to stone a 30-metre (100 feet) long structure, the longest of three walls said to symbolise the devil, also referred to as Ibleess by Muslims.
Some two million pilgrims taking part in this year’s hajj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, had overnight arrived at Mina, a tent town in western Saudi Arabia that comes to life five days a year, after returning from rituals marking the peak of the hajj at nearby Mount Arafat on Monday.
Stoning has in the past been marked by deadly stampedes but the Saudi authorities have now revamped the area, expanding the stoning path into a multi-storey bridge.
The structure, which resembles a parking lot sits in the middle of a barren valley surrounded by arid rocky hills, aims to prevent the type of trampling that caused the deaths of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
The endless flood of white-robed pilgrims were directed Tuesday onto various levels by police, who made sure all moved in one direction only and that no one stayed too long at the site. Those taking a seat were hastily moved on.
At the fifth level of the bridge — the highest — the crowded entry point eases onto a wide bridge where pilgrims can more easily carry out the stoning rituals, which mark defiance of the devil.
After the stoning, pilgrims perform the ritual of sacrificing an animal, usually a lamb, as the third day of hajj also marks the Muslim major feast, Eid al-Adha.
The ritual is carried out across the Muslim world with devotees in Bangladesh expected to slaughter a record 15 million animals this Eid.
Those in Pakistan, however, will slaughter far fewer animals this year as cattle and sheep prices have soared in the wake of the country’s fatal floods.
In the impoverished Gaza Strip, Palestinians have been hard hit by an Israeli blockade which has affected employment and plunged many families into dire economic straits, leaving little spare cash for the four-day holiday.
The sacrificial rite honours Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s order before he was forestalled with a lamb, according to Islamic tradition.
Pilgrims after the stoning rituals, which can last two days, head to Mecca, some five kilometres (three miles) west of Mina, to perform Tawaf, or circumambulation of the Kaaba seven times.
The cubic-shaped Kaaba stone, in whose direction all Muslims worlwide face when they pray, is situated within the site of the sacred Grand Mosque.
In recognition of the importance of the event, US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on Monday extended good wishes to the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims.
“On behalf of the American people, we extend our best wishes during this Hajj season — Eid Mubarak and Hajj Mabrour,” he added, using the traditional holiday greetings in Arabic.
No major incidents have been registered so far. The hajj ends on Friday.