ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — They came in the dark of night, in the thousands, to clamber up the rocky hill called Mount Arafat.
The mound southeast of Mecca is little known outside Islam. For non-Muslims, the circling of the Kaaba — the black, cube-shaped structure in the holy city — is the most arresting visual moment associated with the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
But for Muslims, it was Tuesday’s rite of praying at Arafat that represented the sum and substance of the Hajj.
The hill and the Day of Arafat, as the second day of the annual pilgrimage is called, hold immense significance in Islam. Arafat is mentioned in the Quran and it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon on his final Hajj. According to traditional sayings of the prophet, the Day of Arafat is the most sacred day of the year, when God draws near to the faithful and forgives their sins.
The moment of closeness to God makes it the most personally resonant part of the pilgrimage for many.
By 4 a.m. on Tuesday, the hill’s 70-meter-high (40 feet) summit was packed with believers. They climbed over its rough outcroppings, hauling their personal belongings with them and looking for an open spot. They sat in groups on its stone ledges and in the crevasses between the big boulders.
Some prayed, whispering their appeals to God with their palms raised open to the skies. Some pondered the landscape as the light of daybreak crept across it. Others raised their arms in the universal gesture of taking a selfie to commemorate the moment. Giant ring-shaped sprinklers sprayed mist trying to cool the pilgrims in the heat that rapidly spiraled to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
As the day went on, the area surrounding Mount Arafat filled with some 1.8 million pilgrims. With no shade or breeze, people grabbed whatever they could find to protect themselves from the sun. Volunteers handed out umbrellas and drinks, and trucks packed with crates of bottled water added to the traffic chaos. Cellphones shut down in the heat, and pilgrims punctured water bottles and used them as portable sprinkler systems.
Still, they said they were overjoyed to be there despite the difficulties.
Khaled Al-Shannik, a 30-year-old shop owner from Jordan, said the Hajj was not Mecca. “The Hajj is Arafat,” he said, repeating one of the prophet’s sayings as he sat with his family on a big rock. “All Muslims wish to stand in the position that we are in now.”
Usman Arshad, a 26-year-old Pakistani student, walked nearly 3,000 miles (4,700 kilometers) for this moment. He was determined to reach the Hajj on foot. So he walked from his hometown of Okara in eastern Punjab province, across the breadth of his country and Iran. Then he took a boat to the United Arab Emirates and walked across the Arabian Peninsula to Mecca.
“There were challenges, and I fell a few times, but God helped me to get back up,” he said of the journey, which took six months altogether.
Arshad grew up reading about the Hajj and he knew people who had done it. He spoke to them about what to expect and how to prepare himself. He also did his own research, especially when it came to Arafat.
Arafat is crucial for pilgrims, he said, the moment to receive God’s forgiveness.
“This is no small thing. Everyone believes they are a sinner. If we are given this opportunity (to be forgiven) then we should take it,” he said. “Arafat is a blessed day, and I feel peace and wisdom being here.”
Pilgrims are required to pray at Arafat after midday and until immediately after sunset. They don’t have to be actually on the hill and can be anywhere on the grounds around it.
At noon, the giant crowds of pilgrims listened to a sermon by Sheikh Yusuf bin Said at the sprawling Namirah Mosque, built on the site where the Prophet Muhammad gave his final address to the early Muslim community in the 7th century. The sheikh repeated the prophet’s call for unity.
“We are commanded to be united and prohibited from being divided in all circumstances, which is even more important during the season of Hajj and at the places of rituals,” he said.
After sunset Tuesday, pilgrims head to a nearby desert plain called Muzdalifa to collect pebbles, which they will use the next day in a ritual of symbolically stoning the devil at Mina.
Lujain Jo contributed to this report from Arafat.