Pilgrims began to arrive at the holy city of Mecca on Saturday, for the second reduced Hajj, organized during the coronavirus pandemic, circling the holiest site of Islam with masks and distant roads.
The kingdom allows only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to participate, trying to repeat last year’s success that did not produce any virus outbreaks during the five-day ritual.
This year’s Hajj, with participants chosen by lottery, is larger than the reduced version of 2020, but drastically smaller than in normal times.
After being loaded onto buses and taken to the great mosque in Mecca, pilgrims began to perform the “tawaf,” the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in gold embroidered black cloth, to which the Muslims around the world.
Many wore umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching heat of summer.
“Every three hours, 6,000 people come in to carry out the arrival tawaf,” Hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP news agency. “After the departure of each group, a sterilization process is carried out in the sanctuary.”
The Hajj, generally one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world with about 2.5 million people participating in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be assumed by all Muslims with the means at least one once in a lifetime.
It consists of a series of religious rites, formally beginning on Sunday, which are completed over five days in the holiest city in Islam and its environs in western Saudi Arabia.
It follows a route that the Prophet Muhammad took almost 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the Prophets Abraham and Ismail.
Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online verification system, the event is limited to those who have been fully vaccinated and are between 18 and 65 years old without chronic illness, according to the Hajj ministry.
Pilgrims will be divided into groups of only 20 “to restrict exposure to only 20, limiting the spread of the infection,” Ministry Undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.
“We are very happy,” said Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was chosen for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.
“Many of our friends and relatives were rejected,” he told AFP.
Earlier this month, the Hajj ministry said it was working on “the highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Like the rest of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa and the Middle East.
“I think I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Ether said after being selected.
“This is a special and unforgettable moment in our lives. I thank God for giving me this opportunity, for being accepted by many people who submitted their candidacy, “the 31-year-old told AFP.
To date, Saudi Arabia has reported more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including some 8,000 deaths.
More than 20 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the country to more than 34 million people.
The Hajj advanced last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually participated.
No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health centers, mobile clinics and ambulances to attend to pilgrims, who were taken to religious sites in small batches.