SAUDI ARABIA - Annual Hajj rituals began in Makkah with the arrival of pilgrims in Mina on Wednesday.

Hundreds of pilgrims are performing Hajj this year due to crowd control restrictions put in place by Saudi Arabia in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

For the first time in decades, international travelers were barred from the Hajj due to coronavirus pandemic. Some seventy percent of the worshippers this year are foreign residents of Saudi Arabia, with the rest being Saudi nationals. All of those selected to take part are aged between 20 and 50.

Mask-clad Muslims began the hajj on Wednesday, circling Islam’s holiest site along socially distanced paths in the smallest pilgrimage in modern history as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

But this year only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in the ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.

Pilgrims walked into Makkah’s Grand Mosque to begin the ritual with their first “tawaf”, the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Those selected to take part in Hajj are aged between 20 and 50

Pilgrims were brought in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the hajj in previous years when a sea of humanity swirled around the Kaaba.

The tawaf, which involves walking around the structure seven times, was completed in “record time”, a security commander told state media. “This is an indescribable feeling,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a 43-year-old Egyptian electrician who was among the pilgrims chosen.

“It feels like a dream,” the father-of-three, who resides in the city of Medina, said before entering the mosque. Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during a series of rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Makkah and its surroundings. They said they were given ihram -- a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims -- made from a resistant material.

 

Those selected to take part were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Mecca at the weekend. State media showed health workers sanitising their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.

Workers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba. Using his bare hands, one worker was shown daubing its outer wall with perfume.

Authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection. The foreign press are barred from this year’s hajj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Makkah.

 

After offering Fajar prayer on 10th of Zilhajj in Muzdalifah, pilgrims will move to Jamaraat and pelt stones on the largest Jamra, representing the devil.

The pilgrims will pelt seven pebbles on three each Jamra or Shaitan on 11th and 12th of Dhul Hijjah and leave Mina before sunset. Then a sacrifice would be made in which a lamb or sheep is slaughtered.

After this, men’s heads are shaved, while women cut a lock of their hair and the pilgrims remove their Ihrams and wear normal clothes. Then the Hujjaj will do Tawaf-e-Ziarat and Sai and return to their tents in Mina. Finally, pilgrims will do a farewell Tawaf in Masjid-al Haram before leaving the holy land to complete their Hajj.