Millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, grouped by nationality, stoned the devil in Saudi Arabia's Mina valley on Saturday, as the hajj reached its final stages.
After stoning three walls symbolizing Satan in a rejection of sin and temptation, male pilgrims changed out of the seamless terrycloth robes of pilgrimage and shaved their heads, as a sign of renewal. Women - and those men who prefer not to undergo a complete shave - had a lock of hair clipped.
Security forces were heavily deployed in the stoning area and first aid teams remained on high alert around the three adjacent pillars representing Satan.
Men, women and children from 189 countries moved easily from one pillar to the next shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest)" as they hurled pebbles at the stone walls.
They walked in groups carrying their national flags so no members would get lost in the massive crowds.
As many prayed after and during the stoning, others were taking pictures on their mobile phones of themselves next to the pillars.
The photographing was criticized by members of the security forces who said through loudspeakers: "How are you people stoning Satan and taking pictures with him at the same time?"
Though pilgrims will repeat the stoning ritual for at least two more days, they could now call themselves "hajjis," referring to those who have done the pilgrimage.
Malik Evangelatos, from Ukiah, Calif., said the experience felt "wonderful, satisfying and humbling," according to AP.
Evangelatos, who converted to Islam six years ago, said the simple pilgrim's garment that he had worn the past few days helped him "see the bigger picture in life and go back changed, happy and appreciative." For him, the hajj brought a chance to be truly equal regardless of ethnicity or race.
"It has probably been the highlight of my life outside of getting married and having a baby," he said. "You feel an emotional release. It is something that is not recreated anywhere else in the world."
The ritual, which takes place in the kingdom's usually-deserted Mina valley and comes to life only during the annual hajj pilgrimage, began on Friday with the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday as the faithful began by stoning the largest pillar, Jamrat al-Aqaba.
Mina used to be the most dangerous phase of the hajj and the most problematic for the Saudi authorities, marred by deadly stampedes in the past as well as by fires in tent camps.
In the past few years, however, tents have been fire-proofed and gas canisters and cooking are now banned.
The stoning area has also been expanded to avoid overcrowding.
The Saudi authorities have built a five-level structure around the three stoning sites, allowing for a smooth flow of pilgrims who are only permitted to move in one direction throughout the area to prevent congestion.
The ritual is an emulation of Abraham's stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God's order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
According to the authorities, 168,000 police officers and civil defense personnel were mobilized for this year's hajj. For the stoning, they organized specific times of day for groups of pilgrims to perform the ritual.
Over three million registered pilgrims are taking part in the rituals which will be over on Monday. Many pilgrims, however, conclude the pilgrimage on Sunday.