Rain soaked crowds of Muslim pilgrims and lightning flashed Thursday as they performed some of the final rituals of the annual hajj, stoning symbols of the devil and circling the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site.
Millions of Muslims from all over the world were participating in the pilgrimage this year, and some were finishing the rites on Thursday, though many would continue for another day.
The pilgrims walked seven times around the Kaaba in a "farewell" ritual before leaving. Others were in the desert valley of Mina, several miles away, throwing stones at three walls representing Satan in a symbolic rejection of temptation.
Pilgrims' struggles to navigate the holy sites through the massive crowds that jam roads and streets was made more difficult by rain late Wednesday and Thursday.
In Mina, drenched pilgrims took shelter under whatever structures they could find. The top, exposed level of the multi-story bridge that gives access to the stoning walls was empty of people, and knee-deep water ran through parts of the ground level.
Still, a thinner stream of pilgrims kept coming to perform the rite, some with umbrellas, some with plastic bags over their heads.
Religious duty for every Muslim
Going on hajj is a religious duty for every Muslim capable of performing it. Some faithful save up money their whole lives to make the trip -- others repeat it multiple times to relive the feeling of closeness to God they say it brings.
The rites, which began Monday, date back to Islam's Prophet Muhammed as well as to Abraham, the Biblical patriarch whom Muslims also revere and who they say built the Kaaba. Muslims around the world face the shrine every day while performing prayers.
The hajj season officially ends on Friday, the third Tashreeq day, but pilgrims who are in a rush to conclude their hajj and leave Mecca can do so on the fifth day of the hajj.
Saudi statistics revealed on Tuesday that some 2.8 million pilgrims took part in this year's hajj, way up from their early estimate of around two million.
A total of 1,799,601 pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia and 989,798 from inside the country made the hajj this year, making a total of 2,789,399, Saudi statistics revealed.
The increase was most likely due to a flood of pilgrims without permits. Authorities on Sunday put the number of permits issued to Saudis and citizens of other Gulf states at just 200,000.
On Monday, the hajj peaked with the assembly of all pilgrims in the plain of Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon, on a hill in the plain known as Mount Arafat, or the Mount of Mercy.
No major incidents have so far been registered, a pay-off for Saudi investments in expanding infrastructure at the sacred sites, mainly at the Jamarat stoning site, which has been expanded into a five-level bridge ensuring a smooth flow of pilgrims.
Safe haj is key to Saudi prestige
As pilgrim numbers shot up over the past three decades, staging a safe haj became crucial for the image of a monarchy that styles its king Custodian of the Two Holy Sites -- a reference to the sacred precincts in Mecca and in Medina where the Prophet Mohammad set up the first Muslim administration.
A series of disasters have claimed hundreds of lives during haj since 1990, including fires, stampedes, hotel collapses and clashes between police and pilgrims staging political protests.
This year the government unveiled a haj train linking the holy sites in and around Mecca that cost $1.8 billion to build. It will only be used some six days a year.
"We want to give pilgrims the best possible level of services," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz told reporters last week.
Thanks to its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia can afford to waive the fees for the services it provides, including drinking water, toilet facilities, medical and security services, as well as maintenance and expansion of the Grand Mosque itself.
Cold water is on tap at every corner and medics turn up within minutes when someone collapses. Saudi firms distribute umbrellas as protection from the sun.
The plain of Arafat, where pilgrims spend a whole day according to the rites, has a vast sprinkler system covering an area of some 1.3 sq km (0.5 square miles).
"The Saudi services for pilgrims are really good. One has to say that," said Mohammed Idam, a Yemeni cooling under the spray in the afternoon heat at Arafat.
The efforts pay off in the positive message many pilgrims take home with them.
"Our Saudi brothers have expanded many services," said Moroccan pilgrim Mohammed Hamdush.
"Now they've built a train for pilgrims, which is nice."