Hajj winds down as ritual is marked by health precautions

This hajj season was the smallest in modern history as Saudi authorities sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Monday 03/08/2020
 Muslim pilgrims circumambulating around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on the final day of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP)
Muslim pilgrims circumambulating around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on the final day of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP)

MECCA – In the final ritual of the hajj on Sunday, Muslim pilgrims circled Islam’s holiest site along socially distanced paths.

This hajj season was the smallest in modern history as Saudi authorities sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the pilgrimage, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the five-day annual season last year.

Masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall symbolising Satan in Mina, close to the holy city of Mecca, on the final day of hajj, state media reported.

Instead of gathering the pebbles themselves as in past years, they were handed them bagged and sterilised by hajj authorities, to protect against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

 Muslim pilgrims circumambulating around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on the final day of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP)
Muslim pilgrims circumambulating around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on the final day of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP)

Pilgrims returned to the Grand Mosque in Mecca later Sunday to perform a final “tawaf,” or circling of the Kaaba — a cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Holding the ritual in the shadow of the disease required “double efforts” by Saudi authorities, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said on Friday after being discharged from the hospital following surgery to remove his gall bladder.

“The hajj this year was restricted to a very limited number of people from multiple nationalities, ensuring the ritual was completed despite the difficult circumstances,” said the Saudi king.

Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were recorded among pilgrims at the holy sites of hajj on the fifth day of the pilgrimage.

“By taking all preventive measures and making great efforts, the Kingdom sends the message that human health is its top priority,” Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat said.

The pilgrims, who were required to observe social distancing and subjected to regular temperature checks, will go into mandatory quarantine after the hajj, authorities said.

The ritual, 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 local media said up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom were participating this year.

Workers clean and disinfect the court of the Grand mosque during the evening before the last day of circumambulation around the Kaaba shrine amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, during the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, on August 1, 2020. (AFP)
Workers clean and disinfect the court of the Grand mosque during the evening before the last day of circumambulation around the Kaaba shrine amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, during the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, on August 1, 2020. (AFP)

The hajj ministry had initially said around 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed.

The hajj typically costs thousands of dollars for pilgrims, who often save for years as well as endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend.

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