Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – White-robed worshipers from around the world took to the streets of Islam’s holiest city ahead of the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Banners welcoming the faithful, including the first international visitors since 2019, adorned the squares and alleys, while armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.
“It’s pure joy,” Sudanese pilgrim Abdel Qader Kheder told AFP in Mecca ahead of the event, which officially kicks off on Wednesday. “I almost can’t believe I’m here. I’m enjoying every moment.”
One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed on this year’s hajj after two years of drastically reduced numbers due to the pandemic. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, which every valid Muslim with the means is required to perform at least once.
At least 650,000 foreign pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia so far, authorities said on Sunday.
But authorities on Monday banned nearly 100,000 people from entering Mecca, imposing a security cordon around the holy city. A security official said 288 people had been arrested and fined for attempting to perform hajj without a permit.
In 2019, around 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which also include the gathering at Mount Arafat and the “stoning of the devil” at Mina.
The following year, when the pandemic took hold, foreigners were banned and worshipers were limited to just 10,000 to prevent the hajj from turning into a global superspreader.
This figure has risen to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021.
Pilgrims this year – only those under 65 are allowed – will participate under strict sanitary conditions.
The hajj has seen many disasters over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 people and an attack in 1979 by hundreds of gunmen that, according to the official death toll, left 153 dead.
On Monday afternoon, pilgrims carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun flocked to souvenir shops and barbers in Mecca, while others shared meals under palm trees in the streets near the Grand Mosque .
Many newcomers had already begun performing the first ritual, which involves walking seven times around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the center of the Grand Mosque.
Crafted from granite and draped in fabric featuring verses from the Quran, the Kaaba is nearly 15 meters (50 feet) tall. It is the structure to which all Muslims turn to pray, no matter where they are in the world.
“When I saw the Kaaba for the first time, I felt something strange and I started to cry,” Egyptian pilgrim Mohammed Lotfi told AFP.
The pilgrimage is a powerful source of prestige for the conservative desert kingdom and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who returns from the diplomatic desert.
A few days after the hajj, Prince Mohammed will welcome US President Joe Biden who, with oil prices soaring following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reneged on his vow to make Saudi Arabia a ” pariah” following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, is a source of income for the world’s biggest oil exporter as it tries to diversify its economy. In normal years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.
It is also an opportunity to show the rapid social transformation of the kingdom, despite persistent complaints about human rights violations and the limits of individual freedoms.
Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.
Masks are no longer required in most enclosed spaces in Saudi Arabia, but they will be at the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place. Pilgrims from overseas will need to submit a negative PCR test result.
The Grand Mosque will be “washed 10 times a day…by more than 4,000 male and female workers”, with more than 130,000 liters (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant used each time, authorities said.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, including 9,000 fatalities, out of a population of around 34 million.
Besides Covid, another challenge is the scorching sun in one of the hottest and driest parts of the world, where temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.
“I’m 60, so it’s normal for me to be physically tired from the hot weather, but I’m in a state of serenity, and that’s all that matters to me,” he said. at AFP.
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