An aerial view shows pilgrims gathering on Mount Arafat on Arafat Day yesterday, which is the climax of the hajj pilgrimage — AFP

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia: Their palms facing the sky, around two million Muslims gathered yesterday on Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat for the highlight of the hajj pilgrimage, one of the world's largest annual gatherings. With temperatures pushing 40 degrees Celsius under the desert sun, the faithful climbed the hill east of Makkah where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave his last sermon some 14 centuries ago.

The second day of the hajj - a five-day pilgrimage which all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime if physically and financially able - is dedicated to prayer and reflection. "I came up here last night and prayed, took pictures and called my family and friends," said Maolana Yahia, 32, who made the trip from Indonesia.

Helicopters flew around the area as the pilgrims converged from dawn on the Mount Arafat plain and the hill known as Jabal Al-Rahma, or Mount of Mercy. Forming a sea of white, the pilgrims ascended the hill and took up positions to pray on rocks already heated by the morning sun. On the concrete pathways linking the plain to the hill, hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims invoked God, as others rested in makeshift tents or on sheets along the side of the road.

Sheikh Saad Al-Shathri, a senior Saudi cleric, delivered a midday sermon denouncing terrorism and violence against civilians. "Sharia came to preserve the security of nations and cultivate benevolence in (people's) hearts," he said, referring to the Islamic legal and moral code derived from the teachings of the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH). He urged pilgrims to set aside politics during the haj and come together with fellow Muslims. "This is no place for partisan slogans or sectarian movements which have resulted in great massacres and the displacement of millions," he said.

Men and women from nearly every country in the world gathered side by side, some crying on their neighbor's shoulder. An elderly Syrian pilgrim sitting on the hilltop shouted out, "Oh God, take revenge on the oppressors". Others assembled around him responded, "Amen". Awfa Nejm, from a village near Homs, said: "We ask God to protect Syria and its people and return it to the way it was before."

Twenty-seven-year-old Amin Mohammed from Nigeria said he was praying for peace in his country. Noura Sulieman, a pilgrim from the Philippines, said she'd been to the hajj many times before and was here again to pray for her family. "I came here to Arafat to pray for my family, for my daughter, and my son, and all my family, and all the Philippines Muslims, and all Muslims in all countries," she said. "God willing, Allah will accept our pilgrimage."

Tunisian mother-of-three Fatima Arfawi said she was moved beyond words. "This is the first time I see anything like this, ever," she said. "This day is dedicated to prayer for my three children and my family." In a hospital opposite the mountain, an area was set aside for people suffering dehydration or heat exhaustion. Saudi Arabia's Red Crescent said it had deployed 326 ambulances along the pilgrimage route to handle health emergencies. "Some pilgrims, for example, forget to protect their heads with an umbrella when they pray," said Bandar Al-Harthi, a nurse at a hospital facing Mount Arafat.

In the evening, the pilgrims were to travel to Muzdalifa where they spent the night before taking part in a symbolic stoning of the devil. The Jamarat Bridge, where the ritual is held, was the scene of a stampede in 2015 that claimed the lives of nearly 2,300 pilgrims - the worst disaster in the history of the hajj. Tehran reported the largest number of stampede victims, with 464 Iranians among the dead. Reza, a 63-year-old former oil company official from Iran, said he was torn between the joy of taking part and lingering grief over the stampede. "They've taken more security measures otherwise we would not have come," he said.

Saudi Arabia says it has deployed more than 100,000 security personnel to keep pilgrims safe. At the foot of Mount Arafat, mobile barriers have been installed to control the movement of the crowds. "They will be moved to enlarge the passages when there are more pilgrims," said Ahmed Al-Baraka of the Saudi security forces. - Agencies