MAKKAH: Mask-clad pilgrims began Haj 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.

Haj is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, but only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in this year’s rites, compared with 2019’s gathering of some 2.5 million from around the world.

Pilgrims walked into Makkah’s Grand Mosque in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the normal sea of humanity that swirls around the holy Kaaba during Haj.

“This is an indescribable feeling,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a 43-year-old Egyptian electrician. “It feels like a dream,” the father-of-three who lives in Madina, said by phone before entering the mosque.

The tawaf was completed in “record time”, a security commander told state media.

The pilgrims travelled later on Wednesday to Mina.

Foreign journalists were barred from this year’s Haj, usually a huge global media event.

In a sign that its strict measures were working, the health ministry reported no coronavirus cases in the holy sites on Wednesday, although 122 cases were reported in Makkah.

The pilgrims, who have all been tested for the virus, are required to wear masks and observe social distancing during the rites. They said they were given ihram made from a bacteria-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.

Authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will be barred from touching it, to limit the chances of infection.

Saudi authorities also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims.

“There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but (downsizing) is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic,” said Saudi Arabia’s director of public security, Khalid bin Qarar Al-Harbi.

Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for the Haj, but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed to take part.

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

All those attending the pilgrimage will also have to quarantine afterwards, as the number of Covid-19 cases in the kingdom nears 270,000, one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.

They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for the stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks and a prayer rug, according to a Haj ministry document.

The ministry said foreign residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process, but it did not say how many people applied.

Haj Minister Mohammad Benten said the process was transparent, telling the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020