About 1 million Muslim pilgrims from across the world packed the mosque and streets around the Kaaba shrine in the holy city of Mecca for the last Friday prayers before the annual Haj pilgrimage.
Pilgrims trekked to the mosque hours in advance to reserve a space for their prayer mats as close as possible to the Kaaba, a cubic stone structure which Muslims regard as the centre of an ancestral monotheistic cult established by the prophet Ibrahim, known to Jews and Christians as the patriarch Abraham.
When the spaces in the inner courtyard filled up, the pilgrims chose spaces in the outer courtyard. Latecomers spread their mats on stairways of the shopping mall overlooking the vast mosque and later in the narrow alleys behind.
More than 1.4 million have flocked to Saudi Arabia to prepare for the five-day rites which start on Monday and are a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim who can afford it.
Friday prayers in the Grand Mosque are not part of the Haj programme but many pilgrims attend as a matter of course.
They sat for hours, murmuring prayers, reading from pocket Korans and doing their homework on the complex and gruelling rituals they will perform next week.
Circles around the Kaaba
While Muslims in most places pray in parallel lines facing Mecca, in Mecca they pray in circles centred on the Kaaba.
By the time the pilgrimage rituals start with a mass circumambulation of the Kaaba, Saudis and residents of the kingdom will have taken the total beyond 2 million.
The Haj is described as the world's biggest religious gathering, and men and women from more than 100 countries take part. Some of the largest contingents come from Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
"See how people come from all over the world -- Chinese, Pakistani, Algerians, even Americans. It shows that we are all brothers," said an Algerian who gave his name as Ibrahim.
Saudi state television said on Thursday the police were taking strict measures to keep out aspiring pilgrims who do not have permission to attend.
One of the biggest concerns for the Saudi authorities is managing the large crowds and preventing stampedes and crushes.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may attend this year's Haj and he would be the first Iranian president to take part.
Iranian media said on Wednesday that Ahmadinejad had received a formal invitation from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is friendly towards the United States, which Iran regards as hostile towards Muslims.
The climax of the pilgrimage comes on Tuesday when pilgrims spend the afternoon gathered en masse on the plain of Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca city.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 14 Aralık 2007, 18:23