On Tuesday, as the hajj pilgrimage culminated in stifling summer heat, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims jammed Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat.
On the rocky hilltop, where it is thought that the Prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon, congregations of believers chanted passages from the Koran as dawn broke.
The ritual is the high point of the annual pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, that officials say could be the biggest on record after three years of Covid restrictions.
The hajj, one of the greatest religious gatherings in the world and a source of legitimacy for the royal rulers of the oil-rich nation, was anticipated to draw more than 2.5 million pilgrims.
On Monday, temperatures reached 46 degrees celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) when robed worshipers traveled from Mecca to Mina, where they spent the night in a massive tent city before performing the rituals at Mount Arafat.
Tasneem Gamal, an Egyptian schoolteacher, claimed that she was emotionally exhausted upon reaching Arafat, whose rites constitute a necessary component of the trip.
“I cannot describe my feelings, I am living a great joy,” the 35-year-old woman said.
Gamal is performing the hajj without a male guardian, a requirement that was shelved by Saudi authorities until 2021.
This year, a maximum age limit has also been removed, giving thousands of elderly the chance to attend.
Tuesday provides the biggest physical challenge, as pilgrims will spend hours praying and reciting the Koran on Mount Arafat and in the surrounding area amid high temperatures.
Unlike Mecca, dotted with hotels and malls, and the tents of Mina, air-conditioned shelter is scarce.
As helicopters buzzed overhead, entry roads were packed with worshippers. Thousands of health workers were on alert for cases of heat stroke and exhaustion.
The heat risk will be highest from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm, when outdoor labour is banned in Saudi Arabia between June and September to protect workers.
After sunset, pilgrims will travel the short distance to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, to sleep in the open air.
They would gather stones the next day and perform a ritual “stoning of the devil” by throwing them at three enormous concrete walls.
Back at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, they will make one final lap around the Kaaba, the enormous black cube that Muslims all over the world pray to each day.
The hajj has experienced numerous crises over the years, including militant attacks and devastating fires, so heat is not the only danger.
Up to 2,300 people were killed in a stampede in 2015. Major occurrences have not occurred since.
Before heading to Arafat, American engineer Ahmed Ahmadine said he felt “blessed” to be able to take part in the pilgrimage.
“I try to focus on praying for my family and friends, ” said the 37-year-old.
“This is an opportunity that will not be repeated.”