MECA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — It is a scene of hope — and relief — for Muslims around the world.
A million pilgrims from around the world gathered Thursday in the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, for the opening rites of the haj, the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the annual event, one of the main pillars of Islam.
The haj is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, taking worshipers along the path followed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago. For five days, the pilgrims performed a series of rituals that sought to bring them closer to God.
That includes praying around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure that is Islam’s holiest shrine. In the center of the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, thousands of maskless pilgrims circled the Kaaba on Thursday.
The crowd, visibly smaller than usual, moved counterclockwise around the granite building. Practicing Muslims anywhere in the world pray towards the Kaaba.
Pilgrims appeared to have abandoned COVID-19 precautions, a stark contrast to the social distancing and face masks of the past two years. This time there were signs of some surveillance.
Normally, worshipers would fight the crowd for an occasion to touch and kiss the black stone in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, but the Saudi government has banned this practice. Bottles of water from the holy well were also distributed instead of allowing pilgrims to drink from the containers in the mosque. There were thousands of medical workers to assist those in need.
This year’s haj was open to just one million pilgrims from home and abroad who were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, tested negative for COVID-19 and were between the ages of 18 and 65. The authorities estimated that 85% had come from abroad.
Although this year’s attendance is well below the 2.5 million visitors that came each year before the pandemic, it is a close to normal after the Saudi kingdom restricted the event to a small number of Muslim residents last year. last two years.
The ritual was almost eliminated in 2020, when just 1,000 residents of Saudi Arabia were able to participate. Some 60,000 residents attended last year. The unprecedented restrictions shocked the Muslim world and many believers, who often wait and save for years to make the journey.
Though it has come out of the shadow of the pandemic, the hajj was now taking place during Russia’s war in Ukraine, a conflict that may be thousands of miles from the homes of many Muslims but has soared prices of basic foodstuffs and caused misery. all over the world.
The new edition also reflected the latest efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, to relax social restrictions and transform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia last year began allowing women to officially participate in the hajj without a male guardian.
The haj is intended to be a great equalizer and unifier of Muslims. Pilgrims wear simple clothes: men usually wear a white garment, while women wear conservative clothing, covering their hair and forgoing makeup, nail polish and perfume to get closer to God.
But not even Mecca can escape the wealth gap: the wealthiest can pay around $3,000 a night for five-star hotels with views of the Kaaba. For most, however, the pilgrimage involves sleeping in simple accommodation or on the ground around the mosque for daily prayers before the haj.
DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.