The hajj pilgrimage, which once attracted 2.5 million Muslims from all walks and backgrounds from around the world, is almost non-recognizable today. This year's hajj is smaller than the last, due to the COVID-19 epidemic. It also affects the ability of Muslims outside Saudi Arabia to fulfill their Islamic obligation. Saudi Arabia receives billions of dollars each year from its role as custodian of holy sites.
Although the Islamic pilgrimage takes approximately five days, traditionally Muslims arrive in Mecca weeks before others. The hajj ends with Eid al-Adha, which is a celebration that distributes meat to the poor all over the world.
Due to ongoing concerns about the spread of coronavirus, the hajj was allowed to be performed by 60,000 Saudi citizens and residents. This is a significantly higher number than last years largely symbolic hajj, which saw less than 1,000 participants from the kingdom.
It's not clear when Saudi Arabia will host the millions of Muslim pilgrims it had planned to receive over the next years. There is no agreed-upon standard for vaccination passports, inoculation rates are uneven, and new strains of the virus threaten the progress made in certain countries.
Al Saud rulers of the kingdom have staked their legitimacy largely on their custodianship over hajj sites. This gives them an unparalleled and powerful platform among Muslims worldwide. Despite the changes brought about by the pandemic, the kingdom has taken great measures to ensure that the annual hajj continues without interruption.
Robots were deployed to spray disinfectant on the Kaaba's most busy walkways. This is where most hajj pilgrimages begin and end.
In collaboration with the government's artificial Intelligence Authority, Saudi Arabia is also testing this smart bracelet. It is similar to the Apple Watch, and contains information about the hajj, pilgrim's oxygen levels, and vaccine data. There is also an emergency call button that can be used to call for assistance.
International media outlets that were already in the kingdom were allowed to cover the hajj to Mecca, but not others as was customary prior to the pandemic.
The vast spaces of white marble in the Grand Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, are being cleaned by cleaners several times per day.
"We are sanitizing and using disinfection fluids while cleaning it twice or three times per shift," Olis Gul, a cleaner, said. He has been in Mecca for twenty years.
Hajj is a requirement of Islam that must be done once in a lifetime. It is believed that it follows the same route as the Prophet Muhammad, which was nearly 1,400 years ago.
Hajj is a way to forgive past sins and foster unity among Muslims. Hajj is a transformative experience that involves the communal spirit of over 2 million Muslims from all religions, including Shiite, Sunni, and other Muslim groups.
Questions remain about whether the hajj can draw so many faithful again. Male pilgrims form a sea of white in terrycloth clothes, worn by men to symbolize equality before God and women to focus on their inner selves.
Pilgrims will continue to drink water from the holy Zamzam well in plastic bottles, just like last year. Pilgrims must also carry their own prayer rug, have umbrellas to protect them from the sun, and follow a schedule via a mobile application that tells them when they can be there to avoid crowding.
Aly Aboulnaga, an Egyptian pilgrim and a Saudi Arabian university lecturer said that "I hope this will be a successful hajj year." "We pray for God to accept all hajjs, for greater pilgrimage and for a better future.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the kingdom was working to greatly expand Mecca's capacity to host pilgrims . The clock-tower skyscraper is 1,972 feet (600 meter) and part of a seven-tower complex designed to accommodate highly-paid pilgrims.
With a population exceeding 30 million people, the kingdom has reported more than half a million coronavirus cases, which included more than 8,000 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, it has administered close to 20 million doses coronavirus vaccines.