Saudi Arabia is allowing just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom to participate, away from the huge crowds that descend on Mecca in normal times, when the ritual draws some 2.5 million pilgrims.
Since Saturday, groups of pilgrims have been performing “tawaf” in the Great Mosque of Mecca, surrounding the Kaaba, a large cubic structure wrapped in black cloth embroidered in gold to which Muslims around the world pray.
Later, the pilgrims have gone to the Valley of Mina, where they will spend the night.
“46,000 pilgrims have arrived in Mina,” Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdelfattah bin Suleiman Mashat told AFP on Sunday morning.
“The number of women participating in the Hajj this year exceeds 40 percent,” he added.
Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains and is transformed every year into a vast pilgrim camp.
“Public health teams are monitoring the health status of the pilgrims around the clock upon their arrival in Mecca,” said Sari Asiri, director of the department of hajj and umrah at the Ministry of Health.
Any infected person would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.
At the height of the hajj, the faithful will ascend Mount Arafat on Monday.
Also known as the “Mount of Mercy”, it is the site where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon.
The faithful will perform hours of prayers and Qur’anic recitals.
After descending the next day, they will collect pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil.”
The hajj, generally one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, is one of the five pillars of the Islam and it should be undertaken by all Muslims with the media at least once in their lifetime.
This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the shortened version organized in 2020, but drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are once again excluded.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online research system, and the event was limited to fully vaccinated adults ages 18 to 65 without chronic illnesses, according to the hajj ministry.
“I thank God for having received approval to come, although we did not expect it due to the small number of pilgrims,” said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.
Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani woman traveling with her friend, was among the growing number of women making the pilgrimage without a male “guardian”, a requirement until recently.
“It is a privilege to perform the hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including more than 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the country to more than 34 million people.
The hajj, which typically gathers large crowds at congested religious sites, is potentially a wide-spread event for the virus.
But the Hajj ministry has said it is working on the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
The pilgrims are dividing into groups of just 20 “to restrict exposure to just those 20, limiting the spread of the infection,” said the ministry’s undersecretary, Mohammad al-Bijawi.
In addition to strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a “hajj smart card” to allow contactless access to camps, hotels and buses to transport pilgrims to religious sites.
The hajj took place last year on the smallest scale in modern history.
Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said as many as 10,000 eventually participated.
No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to care for the pilgrims, who were taken to religious sites in small batches.