By Suliman al Asad
Riyadh, Jul 29 (efe-epa).- The Hajj to the Muslim holy city of Mecca began Wednesday, though the changes imposed by the coronavirus outbreak made for a scene dramatically different from previous editions of the annual pilgrimage.
Hundreds – rather than hundreds of thousands – of pilgrims performed the opening ritual: making seven complete circuits in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kaaba, a large cubic structure housing the Black Stone that Muslims regard as a piece of Heaven that fell to Earth.
And the participants in the “tawaf al qudum” made their way around the Kaaba in an orderly fashion, being careful to stay inside the lanes marked on the pavement on the vast square in front of the Great Mosque to ensure social distancing.
Last year, when more than 2 million Muslim faithful from around the world flocked to Mecca for the Hajj, the square surrounding the Kaaba was a sea of humanity.
But with a pandemic raging, Saudi Arabia limited the number of pilgrims for the 2020 Hajj to around 1,000, 30 percent of them Saudis.
The remaining 70 percent are legal permanent residents of the Kingdom representing 160 other nationalities.
The Saudi Health Ministry kept the pilgrims under quarantine at hotels in and around Mecca and took charge of transporting them to the Kaaba in small groups.
Authorities appointed a leader for each group of 50 pilgrims to make sure the visitors comply with preventive measures, including putting on a protective face mask.
All of the pilgrims and the hundreds of local workers who support the event were tested for coronavirus.