Muslim pilgrims started to arrive in the holy city of Mecca on Saturday for the second downsized hajj staged during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam’s holiest site in masks and on distanced paths.
The kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents of Saudi Arabia to take part, seeking to repeat last year’s pilgrimage that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.
This year’s Hajj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times.
After being loaded on buses and brought to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the “tawaf”, the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.
“Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival,” Hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP news agency.
“After each group leaves, a sterilization process is carried out at the sanctuary.”
In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual hajj — a key pillar of Islam that is a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime.