Muslims begin downsized hajj amid pandemic


The first group of female pilgrims praying in Mecca's Grand Mosque on July 29th, at the start of the annual hajj. [STR/AFP]

Pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the start of the annual hajj on July 29th. [STR/AFP]

A picture taken July 29th shows a pilgrim receiving water at the Grand Mosque complex in the holy city of Mecca, at the start of the annual hajj. [STR/AFP]

Pilgrims leave Mecca's Grand Mosque after circumambulating the Kaaba at the start of the hajj on July 29th. [STR/AFP]

Mask-clad Muslims began the hajj on Wednesday (July 29th), 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 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 Mecca's Grand Mosque to begin the ritual with their first tawaf, the circumambulation of the Kaaba.


A picture taken on July 29th shows pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, at the start of the annual hajj. [STR/AFP]

They 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.

Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during the series of rites, completed over five days in and around the holy city of Mecca.

Those selected to take part were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Mecca 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 were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba.

Authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.

The number of coronavirus cases in the kingdom nears 270,000 -- one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.

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