For the first time in modern history, the annual pilgrimage in Mecca in Saudi Arabia has dramatically reduced the number of pilgrims from 2.5 million to as few as 1,000 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Masked pilgrims have arrived at Mount Arafat, a desert hill near Islam’s holiest site, to pray and repent on the most important day of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage in Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The global coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over every aspect of this year’s pilgrimage, which last year drew 2.5 million Muslims from across the world to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon nearly 1,400 years ago.
Only a very limited number of pilgrims were allowed to take part in the hajj amid numerous restrictions to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus. The Saudi government has not released a final figure on the number of hajj pilgrims this year, but has said anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 would be taking part. All of this year's pilgrims are either residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia.
In past years, a sea of pilgrims dressed in white terrycloth garments would start to gather at Mount Arafat, or hill of mercy as it's known, before dawn and remain there until nightfall, spending the day in deep contemplation and worship. It is common to see pilgrims with tears streaming down their faces, their hands raised in worship on the slopes of the rocky hill where the Prophet Muhammad called for equality and unity among Muslims.
The sliver of pilgrims performing the hajj this year arrived at Mount Arafat before noon by bus on Thursday. They are traveling in small groups of 20, following strict guidelines around social distancing, have undergone tests for the Covid-19 disease and were in quarantine before the hajj.
Kehinde Qasim Yusuf, an Australian biomedical engineer who teaches at a university in Medina, was among the few selected to take part in the hajj after submitting an application online. He normally travels during the summer back to Australia to see his children, but due to travel restrictions he remained in the kingdom and decided to make the most of his time by applying for the hajj.
Like other pilgrims who've spoken with The Associated Press, Yusuf said the pilgrimage has been “well-planned and well-organised” by the Saudi government, which has covered all expenses for travel, accommodation, meals and health care for pilgrims on this hajj.
Although he isn't facing massive crowds and traffic along hajj routes, Yusuf said this year's hajj isn't without its own challenges of being in self-isolation and separated from loved ones.
“This year’s hajj also comes with huge sacrifice, as well, on the mental side,” he said.
What is different this year?
Unlike in past years, pilgrims are not allowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with other Muslims from around the world, all considered equal in Islam before God, seeking mercy, blessings, good health, bounty and healing.
Pilgrims are wearing wristbands provided by the Saudi Health Ministry that are connected to their phones and monitor their movements to ensure physical distancing.
International media were not allowed to cover the hajj from Mecca as was customary in past years. Instead, state-run Saudi TV has carried a live broadcast of some parts of the hajj, including Thursday's arrival of pilgrims to Namira Mosque in Arafat, where a sermon will be delivered.
After spending the day in prayer on Mount Arafat, pilgrims will head toward an area called Muzdalifa, about 9 km west of Mount Arafat.
In Muzdalifa, pilgrims rest and traditionally pick up pebbles that will be used for a symbolic stoning of the devil and casting away of evil. This year, however, the pebbles have been prepackaged and sterilised.
The final ritual takes place over three to four days in Mina, an area about 20 km (12 miles) east of Mecca. The final days of hajj coincide with Eid al Adha, or the festival of sacrifice, celebrated by Muslims worldwide.
Crowds of millions of pilgrims from around the world could be a hotbed for virus transmission, and in the past some worshippers have returned to their countries with respiratory and other diseases.
The Saudi government is being cautious this time around.
Saudi healthcare and security professionals, on the front lines of the battle against the disease, make up about 30 percent of the total, with the remainder coming from 160 nationalities residing in the Kingdom.
Mask-wearing pilgrims circled the Kaaba — a stone structure that is the most sacred in Islam and the direction which Muslims face to pray — in small groups of 50 people, each keeping a safe distance apart and accompanied by a health professional monitoring their movements.
Unlike past years when they lunged towards the Kaaba, pilgrims are not allowed to touch the plain stone cube building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk.
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.
Pilgrims took several medical tests and were asked to quarantine for a week before starting their journey, then isolate for another week in their hotel rooms.
They were given an electronic bracelet to monitor their movements and a suitcase containing all basic necessities.
On site, 3,500 workers spread across the Grand Mosque in Mecca to sanitise it using 54,000 litres (11,888 gallons) of disinfectant and 1,050 litres of air fresheners daily.
The floors of the mosque were scrubbed 10 times a day, up from three times in the past.
Six hospitals were dedicated to serving pilgrims and 51 clinics and 200 ambulances were spread across different sites, with the support of 62 field teams and 8,000 healthcare professionals.
"The kingdom is relying on years of experience in managing the pilgrimage and has worked hard in collaboration with the WHO to ensure that the pilgrimage goes very smooth," said Hanan Balkhy, assistant director-general of antimicrobial resistance at the World Health Organization.