MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) - Pilgrims began arriving in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca on Saturday (July 17) for the second downsized haj staged during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam's holiest site in masks and on socially distanced paths.
The kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part, seeking to repeat last year's success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.
This year's haj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.
After boarding buses to Mecca's Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.
"Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival," hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP. "After each group leaves, a sterilisation process is carried out at the sanctuary."
The haj, usually one of the world's largest annual religious gatherings with some 2.5 million people taking part in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
It consists of a series of religious rites, formally starting on Sunday, which are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
Among the chosen ones this year was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.
"We are overjoyed," said Ameen. "So many of our friends and relatives were rejected."
Like the other countries of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa and the Middle East.
"I feel like I won a lottery," Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected.
"This is a special, unforgettable moment in one's life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied," the 31-year-old said.
On Sunday, the pilgrims will move on to Mina, around 5km away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed that the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon.
Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, according to the haj ministry.
The experience for some women in attendance has been boosted by them no longer being required to be under male supervision - a stipulation dropped over 18 months ago.
"So many women are also going with me, so I am very proud that we are now independent (and) we don't need any mahram (male guardian)," said pilgrim Bushra Ali Shah, a Pakistani resident of Jeddah.
The haj ministry has said it is working on the "highest levels of health precautions" in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Pilgrims are being divided into groups of just 20 "to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection", ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths.
Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The haj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.
No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater for the pilgrims, who were taken to the religious sites in small batches.
In normal years, the pilgrimage packs large crowds into congested religious sites, but even this year's downscaled events are seen as a potential mechanism for contagion.
Worshippers were last year given amenity kits including sterilised pebbles for the "stoning of Satan" ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a traditional seamless white haj garment, made from a bacteria-resistant material.
Hosting the haj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam's holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.
The haj ministry received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery.