Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims stoned walls symbolizing the devil in a narrow valley outside Mecca Monday at the most dangerous stage of the haj pilgrimage.
Pilgrims began three days of stoning and celebrated the first day of Eid al-Adha, commemorating the willingness of biblical patriarch Abraham to sacrifice his son for God.
"It took a long time since they made us go in one line, but it was easy to do," said Osama Khashaba, an Egyptian accountant, after throwing stones at the Jamarat Bridge in a ritual representing rejection of temptation.
The bridge in the narrow valley of Mena just outside Mecca has been the scene of a number of deadly stampedes. The last was in 2006 when 362 people were crushed to death in the worst haj tragedy since 1990.
Saudi authorities have made renovations to ease the flow of pilgrims at the bridge, adding an extra level so that they have four platforms from which to throw stones each day.
Authorities also appealed to pilgrims this year to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics have often insisted in the past.
Saudi Arabia has not so far reported any glitches in the haj, a challenging logistical feat that has been marred in previous years by deadly fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and stampedes caused by overcrowding.
"Let's make the accidents at the stoning part of history, may it never return," Saudi television said in one program.
Elaborate crowd control measures, involving security forces and a maze of paths marked by barriers, guided pilgrims to the three spots by the bridge in the Mena valley where they threw stones they had collected overnight at a spot called Muzdalifa.
"This crowdedness is really scary," said Umm Mohammad, a Syrian pilgrim. "God willing no one will be hurt."
The government has also been tougher this year in preventing Saudis and foreign residents taking part without official haj permits. Saudi media said a record 1.72 million pilgrims had come from abroad this year. More than half a million usually join from inside the country, home to Islam's holiest sites.
Most pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca after the first round of stoning rituals late on Sunday.
Many crowded into the mosque in the early hours of the morning, circling the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims around the world turn in prayer.
Afterwards men had their heads shaved, according to the rules of haj. "It will take three minutes a head," said a man ushering people into a busy barbershop near the mosque.