Millions of Muslims start annual hajj near Mecca

By the Associated Press | November 5, 2011 | 3:05 AM EDT

Muslim pilgrims climb a rocky hill called the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 2.5 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Wearing white robes to symbolize purity and equality under God, millions of Muslims have begun their annual hajj pilgrimage by climbing a rocky desert hill outside Mecca.

Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims started at dawn on Saturday to ascend the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat, 12 miles (19 kilometers) outside Mecca, where Islam's Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his farewell sermon. They believe that God will answer prayers and grant forgiveness.

The ascent of Arafat is the first event associated with the five-day hajj.

Muslims from around the world wait a lifetime for a chance to make the pious journey in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed and Abraham, whom Muslims view as a forefather of Islam.