Muslims begin downsized hajj amid pandemic
MAKKAH, July 29: 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.
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, told AFP 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 Makkah 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. -AFP