Downsized, Hajj 2020 begins in Saudi Arabia

Saudis brace to host a Hajj like no other as coronavirus measures ramp up in Mecca

Sprayed with water sprinklers to beat the desert heat, the pilgrims raised their palms skywards as they climbed the slopes of the hill where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.

The Hajj minister said in June the number of pilgrims would be limited to about 1,000, but no official number has been given for those performing the rituals this week.

Over two million people from across the world visit Mecca every year to go on a pilgrimage, the Hajj, during the last month of the Islamic year.

"This year's hajj was a good opportunity for the Saudi authorities to learn about the effects and importance of wearing a mask in curbing the spread of diseases among pilgrims", infectious diseases doctor Ghanem al-Hujailan told AFP.

Physical distancing markers are seen where Muslim pilgrims cast pebbles at pillars symbolizing Satan.

Around 2.5 million pilgrims including record two lakh from India performed Hajj previous year.

Prayer mats were socially distanced.

But this year, the Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care, worshippers said.

A policeman directing traffic in Mecca, during the hajj.

"I can perform my rituals away from crowds, which creates an atmosphere of spirituality and tranquility", Wajdan Ali, a 25-year-old Saudi nurse, who was selected after she recovered from the virus.

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What is different this year?

Despite the fact that the world has been taken in by the contagious coronavirus, the annual Hajj pilgrimage is taking place by incorporating all the safety protocols and social distancing measures indicating that Hajj 2020 might be the safest one ever.

After staying whole day in Arafat, pilgrims will travel back to Mazdalfa to offer Maghrib and Isha prayers together.

The speech came on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, a day after the king left hospital following a 10-day stay for surgery to remove his gall bladder. This is the first time in modern history that Saudi Arabia has barred millions of global pilgrims.

The Saudi government is being cautious this time around.

Some 70% of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom, while the rest are Saudi citizens, authorities said.

Pilgrims also said they were given ihram, the traditional seamless white hajj garment, made from a bacteria-resistant material.

Workers sanitised the structure, rubbing Oud perfume, the popular Arab sweet and woody scent, on its walls and carrying incense as they moved around the premises of the Grand Mosque.

They were given an electronic bracelet to monitor their movements and a suitcase containing all basic necessities.

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

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