On Day 3, the entire community moves east to the Plain of Arafat for the most important ritual of the hajj. Known as the Standing, this event is the spiritual climax. From noon until sunset, the old and young, healthy and well, rich and poor spread across the wide plain to pray, read the Koran, and meditate. As millions of gallons of water are misted from overhead poles, all of it evaporating before it hits ground, many of the pilgrims are moved to tears, feeling spiritually renewed.
When the sun has set below the barren hillsides, the travelers turn their course back toward Mecca. Along the way, they stop at the plain of Muzdalifah. Under a crescent moon, the pilgrims gather 49 pebbles, each no smaller than a chickpea or larger than a hazelnut. At dawn, they will re-enact an episode in which Abraham is said to have driven away Satan by throwing stones. This ritual is the most dangerous part of the hajj—scores-deep rows of pilgrims jockeying for spots and hurling stones—and it is here that most of the deaths have occurred.
The return to Mina marks the start of a three-day feast, Eid al-Adha, which is the greatest celebration of the year. Islamic tradition holds that when Abraham obeyed God's command to kill his own son, God substituted a ram at the last moment. Today, a goat, sheep, or camel is sacrificed in remembrance of Abraham's devotion; this year more than a million animals were slain for the feast. The hajj completed, the pilgrims ride a wave of euphoria and exhaustion back to Mecca. There, many of the men shave their heads, and women clip their nails and a short length of hair.
Batul Al-Saigh, 32, of Northern Virginia made the hajj this year for the first time. "To stand before the Kaaba, to see the footprints where Abraham stood, to realize that the Prophet was here—and now I am here where he stood," she says, her voice breaking. She looks down at her daughter, whose small pigtails fall against her mother's dark robe. "I will someday take my children," she says as her tears fall.