By Sarah El Deeb
MINA, Saudi Arabia – Pilgrims performing the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia cast pebbles at three stone walls representing Satan in a symbolic rejection of temptation, as Muslims around the world celebrated Islam’s biggest holiday, the festival of sacrifice.
Massive crowds of Muslims filed along a giant ramp that houses the walls in the Mina valley, pelting them. Some 3 million people from around the world were attending the hajj pilgrimage this year, and the stoning ceremony in the past has seen deadly crushes and pileups, though the building of the four-story-tall ramp in recent years has eased access and prevented stampedes.
Instead, the biggest problem this year appeared to be traffic on roads, as the throngs of pilgrims moved between Mina, the nearby holy city of Mecca and other ritual sites. It appeared that a greater number than usual of “unofficial” pilgrims were performing the hajj this year — pilgrims who sneak in without going through tour groups as required by Saudi authorities and sleep along roadsides in tents during the four days of rituals.
Some buses transporting pilgrims couldn’t move because they were surrounded by sleeping “unofficial” pilgrims camped out in parking lots. Further snarling the logistical nightmare, Saudi authorities shut down some roads to vehicles to allow the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims moving on foot to pass.
“We’re not going everywhere, everything is blocked,” moaned Mohammed Asfar, a 25-year-old Pakistani stuck in a traffic jam trying to get into Mina. “I was expecting a lot more.”
The first day of stoning also marks the start of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, meaning “Feast of Sacrifice,” when Muslims around the world slaughter sheep and cattle in remembrance of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son.
After performing the stoning, pilgrims bought tokens to have a sheep slaughtered and the meat distributed to the poor. The stoning lasts three days until the end of hajj on Sunday.