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Two million pilgrims begin Hajj

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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- About 2 million Muslims from around the world began streaming out of Mecca on Sunday, the first day of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad.

Moving in cars, vans and on foot, a mass of white-robed pilgrims poured into a tented city at the valley of Mena at the start of the five-day ritual.

Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the trip is obliged to perform the Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime. (Watch an experience of the Hajj -- 2:10)

Making Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islamic faith. Mecca is revered as the holiest site of Islam, and the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, is the focal point of the rites observed.

The six-day pilgrimage ends with a four-day feast called the Eid al-Adha.

Among the rites during the Hajj are the circling of the Ka'aba, the stone building Muslims believe was originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

The Ka'aba is considered the first sanctuary on Earth dedicated to the worship of the One God. It is a symbol of unity for Muslims, because all prayers, wherever they are performed, are oriented in the direction of the Ka'aba.

The Hajj has been connected with deadly incidents in the past, most of them stampedes that take place during the ceremonies. But the risks are increasing, with disease and terrorism high on the list of Saudi concerns.

Last week, a hotel near the Grand Mosque in central Mecca collapsed, killing at least 76 people. Authorities were still investigating what caused the small hotel to crumble, sending chunks of debris into the street and onto sidewalks packed with Muslims in Mecca for the Hajj.

The worst stampede happened in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death.

More recently, 251 pilgrims died two years ago in a stampede during a stone-throwing ritual that has been the trigger for previous deadly tramplings.

A stampede in 2003 killed 36 pilgrims, most of them en route to the devil-stoning ritual, conducted outside Mecca. In 2001, a stampede at the same ritual killed 35.

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