MINA, Saudi Arabia: Rain soaked crowds of Muslim pilgrims and lightning flashed Thursday as they performed some of the final rituals of the annual hajj, stoning symbols of the devil and circling the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site.
Some 2.8 million Muslims from all over the world were participating in the pilgrimage this year, and some were finishing the rites on Thursday, though many would continue for another day.
The pilgrims walked seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped shrine in Mecca, in a "farewell" ritual before leaving. Others were in the desert valley of Mina, several miles away, throwing stones at three walls representing Satan in a symbolic rejection of temptation.
Pilgrims’ struggles to navigate the holy sites through the massive crowds that jam roads and streets was made more difficult by rain late Wednesday and Thursday. In Mina, drenched pilgrims took shelter under whatever structures they could find. During the stoning, waves of people move along a giant multi-level bridge that takes them past the three walls so they can throw their stones — and with the rain coming down, the top, exposed level — usually packed — was empty.
Still, for most the rain didn’t dampen the powerful emotion of the religious experience.
"This makes me a strong Muslim, God is very big and I’m very small. I was like a child asking for help from his mother and father," Seifallah Khan, a 38-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, said of his feelings as he performed the rites.
An Egyptian from the Nile Delta, 60-year-old Sayed Metwalli, said that now that he was retired, he could finally fulfill his dream of performing hajj. But, he added, "age has its limits. There are a lot of difficulties but God gives you strength."
Going on hajj is a religious duty for every Muslim capable of performing it. Some faithful save up money their whole lives to make the trip — others repeat it multiple times to relive the feeling of closeness to God they say it brings.
The rites, which began Monday, harken back to Prophet Mohamed as well as to Abraham, the Biblical patriarch whom Muslims also revere and who they say built the Kaaba. Muslims around the world face the shrine every day while performing prayers.
Farag Khalil, an Egyptian butcher in his 50s, said it was his third time performing the pilgrimage. "I hope from God that for as long as I live I manage to make it to hajj," he said. "Prayers in Mecca are like a 100,000 times (the value) of prayer from any other mosque."
He arrived in the country two weeks before hajj began and planned to stay an extra week to visit nearby sites, including the prophet’s mosque in the holy city of Medina.
"Why should I be in a hurry to leave? I wish I could die here," he said. "Every time I come I regret the time of my life I spent outside of Mecca."