Muslim pilgrims wearing face masks and moving in socially distanced groups have started arriving in Mecca for what may be the most scaled-down Hajj in history.
Coronavirus restrictions mean just 1,000 visitors are being allowed into Islam’s holiest city for the annual event – compared with around 2.5 million people normally.
The limitations mean only Muslims already living in Saudi Arabia – where Mecca is – and aged between 20 and 50 are being allowed to take part. The holy Ka’bah, the religion’s most sacred site, will be cordoned off over the full five days.
Authorities in the Middle East kingdom are desperate to prevent a further spike in Covid-19 cases there: some 270,000 people have already been infected in the country, making it one of the worst hit places in the world.
“There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but [downsizing] is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic,” said Khalid bin Qarar al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia’s director of public security.
He added that all pilgrims would be required to wear masks and observe social distancing at all times during the series of religious rites that are completed as part of Hajj.
They will be subject to temperature checks on arrival in Mecca, while state media has already shown health workers sanitising the luggage of visitors.
Rather than eating together with others from around the world, pilgrims will be expected to dine in small groups at their hotels. They are being asked to wear electronic wristbands so authorities can monitor their movements.
Pebbles which are usually picked up by pilgrims as part of the ritual – to symbolise the casting away of evil – have been sterilised and bagged up ahead of time by authorities.
The Hajj – a pilgrim which follows a route the Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago – is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims to complete at least once in their lifetime.