MINA: Some 1.4 million Muslim pilgrims who came from 188 countries started leaving Saudi Arabia on Thursday at the end of this year’s largely incident-free hajj.
Although the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, comes to a close officially on Friday, pilgrims are allowed to leave a day early after taking part in the stoning of the devil ritual.
Pilgrims woke up early on Thursday and began stoning three huge concrete structures in Mina representing Satan straight after sunrise, in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
The ritual is an emulation of the Prophet Abraham’s stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
After the stoning, pilgrims performed the final tawaf, or circumambulation, around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s most important shrine in the holy city of Mecca.
Muslims believe the Kaaba — which they call the “House of God” — was built by Abraham 4,000 years ago.
Thousands of pilgrims were later seen loading trucks with luggage and departing their hotels in Mecca.
A majority of them travel the 100-kilometre (60-mile) journey to Jeddah international airport to take flights back home.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to maintain the security of the pilgrims during the hajj.
The authorities have declared this year’s hajj a grand success after it finished free of accidents and diseases, especially the deadly MERS virus which has so far killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in the kingdom itself.
The overall number of pilgrims at this year’s hajj was just under two million, sharply down on last year’s 3.2 million.
Foreign pilgrims accounted for 1.38 million of them, compared with 1.75 million in 2012.
Officials said the smaller number contributed to the success.
The pilgrimage was monitored by more than 5,000 cameras installed at all holy sites, including 1,200 at the Grand Mosque, managed by the Command and Control Centre for Hajj Security.
Saudi Minister of Hajj Affairs Bandar Hajjar said on Wednesday that his ministry has been instructed by the king to work out a 25-year plan to ensure the smooth running of the pilgrimage.