Muslim pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia started their Hajj pilgrimage on Sunday, an annual event strictly curtailed for the second consecutive year over COVID-19 concerns.
This year, only 60,000 Saudis and foreigners already residing in the oil-rich monarchy are taking part in the Hajj, one of Islam’s five pillars.
The figure pales in comparison to the usually 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world who usually gather annually for the Hajj, Islam’s largest congregation.
Last month, Saudi authorities said eligible pilgrims must be in the age group ranging from 18 to 65 years and fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Pilgrims were transported from the Saudi city of Mecca to the Mina valley where they will spend the night before heading to Mount Arafat where the Hajj reaches its peak on Monday.
Around 36,000 pilgrims are already in Mena and the rest will follow in the next hours, Saudi state television al-Ekhbariya reported.
In Mecca, pilgrims walked seven times in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped holy building inside the Grand Mosque. They also run back and forth between two historical hills in the area.
The pilgrims walked in tracks along signs put on the floor to maintain social distancing, a major difference from the usually packed Grand Mosque every year during the Hajj.
In an attempt to prevent human contact and infections, robots have been introduced to hand out bottles of holy water to pilgrims in the Grand Mosque, Saudi media reported.
The Hajj is a mandatory duty for all Muslims to complete once in a lifetime, if they have the financial and physical means to do so.