The largest Haj pilgrimage since the start of the coronavirus pandemic begins Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of mostly maskless worshipers expected to circumambulate Islam’s holiest site in Mecca of Saudi Arabia.
One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, will be allowed to attend this year’s Hajj, a major two-year hiatus with numbers drastically reduced due to the pandemic.
At Mecca’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims perform “tawaf,” the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered black cloth that Muslims around the world turn to for prayer.
Many have chosen to perform the ritual ahead of the official Hajj start date on Wednesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, white-clad male worshipers and women in brightly colored abayas walked side by side on the white floors near the Kaaba, the majority without masks, although authorities said last month masks would be mandatory at the site.
“I was just praying for you,” said a pilgrim in a green robe during a video call with relatives.
“I love you mother, I love you all,” she added, waving into the screen of her phone as she continued to walk around the Kaaba.
– Five days full of rituals –
This year’s Hajj is bigger than the slimmed down versions of 2020 and 2021, but still smaller than normal times.
In 2019, around 2.5 million Muslims from around the world attended the annual event – an important pillar of Islam that able-bodied Muslims must embrace at least once in their lives.
But after that, the coronavirus outbreak forced a dramatic downsizing. In 2021, only 60,000 fully vaccinated UK citizens and residents took part, down from a few thousand in 2020.
The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites performed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its environs in western Saudi Arabia.
On Thursday, pilgrims will move to Mina, about five kilometers from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have delivered his final sermon.
This year’s Hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65, selected from millions of applicants via an online lottery system.
People coming from outside Saudi Arabia had to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.
Since the pandemic began, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, with more than 9,000 fatal.
– ‘Too hot’ –
Those attempting to perform the Hajj without a permit could face a fine of 10,000 Saudi riyals (about US$2,600).
Police officers in the mountain town have set up checkpoints and conducted foot patrols while holding green umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun.
Temperatures in Mecca exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.
Female paramedics were on call at various locations in the Grand Mosque, and volunteers with wheelchairs waited in a long line to help those in need.
Authorities have set up several health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to attend to pilgrims.
Some pilgrims wore clothes with the names and flags of their countries. “Hajj 2020 – Chad” was written on the back of one group’s white robes.
Hosting the Hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of political legitimacy for the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Costing at least $5,000 per person, it’s also a win for the world’s largest oil exporter as it seeks to diversify its economy.
In normal years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.
Today it represents an opportunity to showcase the Kingdom’s ongoing social change despite persistent complaints of human rights violations and restrictions on personal liberties.
Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend Hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.
“Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t wait for the rest,” said 42-year-old Egyptian pilgrim Naima Mohsen, who came alone to the Grand Mosque on Tuesday.
“My only problem is the weather. It’s just too hot.”
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