A few thousand Muslim pilgrims have streamed out of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to launch the annual Hajj pilgrimage for the second downsized rituals staged during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since Saturday, groups of pilgrims have been performing the “tawaf,” the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Many have been carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.
“Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival,” Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP news agency.
“After each group leaves, a sterilization process is carried out at the sanctuary.”
Some pilgrims have already been making their way to the Valley of Mina, where they will spend the night.
“A total of 46,000 pilgrims have arrived in Mina,” Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdelfattah bin Suleiman Mashat told AFP on Sunday morning.
“The number of women participating in the Hajj this year exceeds 40 percent,” he added.
Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
Because of coronavirus-related restrictions on large gatherings, no foreign pilgrims have been allowed to perform the Hajj again this year.
Only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents between the ages of 18 and 65 were allowed to register for the annual pilgrimage.
The year before, up to 10,000 Saudi citizens and residents were permitted to perform the Hajj.
In the years before the pandemic, about 2.5 million pilgrims from across the world flocked to Islam’s holiest site to attend the Hajj.
Last year, worshipers were given amenity kits including sterilized pebbles for the “Stoning of Satan” ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a traditional seamless white Hajj garment, made from a bacteria-resistant material.
Saudi authorities this year have also assigned every 20 pilgrims a health official to guide the group, and monitor their adherence to strict health and safety regulations.
Physical distancing between pilgrims during the rituals including during mass prayers and while circling the Kaaba will be strictly imposed, according to a statement by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths.
Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all able-bodied Muslims to perform if they can afford it.
Muslims ultimately perform the Hajj with the aim of cleansing their souls and reviving their relationship with God.