The Hajj: Symbol of Muslim unity, equality and spiritual rejuvenation
Millions of Muslims from across the world converge on Islam's holiest city of Mecca and nearby sites in Saudi Arabia to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is a mandatory duty for all Muslims to make at least once in their lifetime if they have the financial and physical means to do so.
Men don seamless white clothes and women wear loose garments and must refrain from wearing make-up and jewellery. They perform the same rituals in a demonstration of religious unity, equality and pursuit of spiritual renewal.
Muslims perform the Hajj following in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad, but the pilgrimage to Mecca can be traced back thousands of years to the time of the prophet Ibrahim, known as Abraham in the Old Testament.
According to Islam's holy book, the Koran, Ibrahim and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba, or House of God, in Mecca as a house of monotheistic worship.
Muslims face the Kaaba during their daily prayers. Following arrival in Mecca, each pilgrim walks seven times in a counter clockwise direction around the black, cube-shaped Kaaba and runs back and forth between two historical hills, parts of which are still preserved inside the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba.
The Hajj peaks with the pilgrims thronging Mount Arafat, around 20 kilometres east of Mecca. The granite hill is the place where Mohammed delivered his last sermon around 14 centuries ago. There, the pilgrims chant in supplication to God to forgive their sins.
The pilgrims stay in Arafat until sunset, when they head to the nearby plain area of Muzdalifah where they stay overnight.
In Muzdalifah, the faithful collect pebbles to use for a symbolic stoning of the devil on the following day in the desert valley of Mina, just outside Mecca. They cast pebbles at pillars in a rite commemorating Ibrahim's reaction when the devil tried to tempt him into disobeying God.
Upon finishing the stone-throwing ritual on the first day of the Eid ul-Adha festival, which falls on Tuesday this year, male pilgrims traditionally change out of their robes, shave their heads and slaughter a sacrificial animal. Women cut a lock of their hair.
Male and female pilgrims then go to Mecca again to circumambulate the Kaaba. Later in the day, they return to Mina to stay overnight and throw stones for two more days. The pilgrimage takes place from the eighth to the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. (dpa)