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Watch again: Pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia for first day of Hajj, as COVID-19 reshapes experience

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The Hajj pilgrimage was much smaller this year due to coronavirus.
The Hajj pilgrimage was much smaller this year due to coronavirus.   -   Copyright  Saudi Media Ministry/AP
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Hajj pilgrims, wearing face masks and moving in small groups after days in isolation, began arriving from across Saudi Arabia at Islam's holiest site in Mecca on Wednesday. Only people who live in Saudi Arabia are allowed to attend the event this year.

Rather than standing and praying shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people, pilgrims are social distancing. They move in small groups of 20.

Between 1,000 to 10,000 people already residing in Saudi Arabia were selected to take part in the Hajj this year. One-third of the attendees are Saudi security personnel and medical staff. The other two-thirds are ex-pats from 160 different nations living in Saudi Arabia. However, the government has not released a final figure of the number of attendees.

Those chosen for Hajj this year were selected after applying through an online portal, and required to be between the ages of 20 and 50, with no terminal illnesses and showing no symptoms of the virus. Preference was given to those who have not performed the Hajj before.

Humaira Zaki, a resident of New Jersey, was among many who had made reservations for this year's Hajj, but her plans were upended by the virus. Her heart sank when she found out the Hajj would not be open to pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia, though she said she understands the decision.

“You plan and you plan and you plan and you hope and you hope and you hope," the 46-year-old said. “You don’t know how long you got on this earth and it’s one thing you want to just do ... before your time is done here.”

Extensive preparations

Pilgrims were tested for the coronavirus, given wristbands that connect to their phones and monitor their movement and were required to quarantine at home and in their hotel rooms in Mecca ahead of Wednesday's start of the Hajj. They will also be required to quarantine for a week after the Hajj concludes on Sunday.

Mecca was sealed off for months ahead of the Hajj, and the smaller year-round Umrah pilgrimage was suspended.

International media were not permitted to cover this year's Hajj from Mecca. Instead, Saudi government broadcast live footage from the Grand Mosque on Wednesday showing limited numbers of pilgrims, moving several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the Hajj.

Touching the Kaaba, which represents the house of God, will not be permitted during this year's Hajj. Moreover, pilgrims will only be able to drink water from this Zamzam well that is packaged in plastic bottles. Pebbles that are used to 'cast away evil' will be sterilized and bagged ahead of time.

Pilgrims have also been given their own prayer rugs and special attire to wear during the Hajj laced with silver nanotechnology that Saudi authorities say helps kill bacteria and makes clothes water-resistant. They were also provided with umbrellas to shield them from the sun, towels, soaps, sanitizers and other essentials, as well as online sessions in a different language about what to expect on the Hajj and the regulations in place.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia needs to put these measures in place so we can learn from this experience,” said Saudi infectious disease expert and World Health Organization official, Dr Hanan Balkhy.

One of the most important requirements for Muslims

The Hajj is one of Islam's most important requirements, performed once in a lifetime. It follows a route the Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The Hajj, both physically and spiritually demanding, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.

It is the first time in nearly a century of Saudi rule over Mecca that people from outside the kingdom will not take part in the five-day pilgrimage.