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story.lead_photo.caption Saudi security forces keep watch Wednesday as pilgrims arrive at the Grand Mosque at Mecca. The pilgrims, who were selected after applying through an online portal, were required to be between ages 20 and 50, with no terminal illnesses and no apparent coronavirus symptoms. (AP/Saudi Media Ministry)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Muslim pilgrims, donning masks and moving in small groups after days in isolation, began arriving at Islam's holiest site in Mecca on Wednesday for the start of a historically unique and scaled-down hajj experience reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

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 Abraham and Ishmael.

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

Rather than standing and praying shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people from different walks of life, pilgrims this year are social distancing -- standing apart and moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The pilgrimage is a journey that Muslims traditionally experience with relatives. In past years, it was common to see men pushing their elderly parents around on wheelchairs in order to help them complete the hajj, and parents carrying children on their backs.

The communal feeling of more than 2.5 million people from around the world -- Shiite, Sunni and other Muslim sects -- praying together, eating together and repenting together has long been part of what makes hajj a challenging and rewarding experience like no other.

This year, however, pilgrims are eating prepackaged meals alone in their hotel rooms and praying at a distance from one another.

The Saudi government is covering all the pilgrims' expenses of travel, accommodation, meals and health care.

While the experience is starkly different, Muslims believe it remains an opportunity for pilgrims to wipe clean past sins and deepen their faith.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkOGiCKIP-o]

For the first time in Saudi history, the government barred Muslims from entering the kingdom from abroad to perform the hajj as a way to limit exposure of the coronavirus.

Instead, as few as 1,000 people already living in Saudi Arabia were selected to take part in the hajj this year. Two-thirds are foreign residents from among the 160 different nationalities that would have normally been represented at the hajj. One-third are Saudi security personnel and medical staff members.

The pilgrims, who were selected after applying through an online portal, were required to be between ages 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.

Gallery: Muslims make scaled-down pilgrimage

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/730saudi/]

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 Sunday.

Muslim pilgrims keep distance Wednesday as they circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The procession marks the start of the hajj, a pilgrimage all Muslims must make at least once, but for the first time, only Muslims in Saudi Arabia are being allowed. More photos at arkansasonline.com/730saudi/.
(AP)
Muslim pilgrims keep distance Wednesday as they circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The procession marks the start of the hajj, a pilgrimage all Muslims must make at least once, but for the first time, only Muslims in Saudi Arabia are being allowed. More photos at arkansasonline.com/730saudi/. (AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
Muslim pilgrims line up as they leave after they circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, as they keep social destination to protect themselves against Coronavirus a ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is believed to have run as she searched for water for her dying son before God brought forth a well that runs to this day. (AP Photo)
Muslim pilgrims line up as they leave after they circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, as they keep social destination to protect themselves against Coronavirus a ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is believed to have run as she searched for water for her dying son before God brought forth a well that runs to this day. (AP Photo)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, officials prepare for the arrival of pilgrims Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by simulating the first rites of hajj around Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, hours before the pilgrimage is set to begin. The Islamic pilgrimage has been drastically downsized from 2.5 million pilgrims to as little as 1,000 this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic.  pilgrimage has been dramatically downsized. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, officials prepare for the arrival of pilgrims Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by simulating the first rites of hajj around Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, hours before the pilgrimage is set to begin. The Islamic pilgrimage has been drastically downsized from 2.5 million pilgrims to as little as 1,000 this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic. pilgrimage has been dramatically downsized. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, a limited numbers of pilgrims move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
A police vehicle escorts a pilgrim convoy as they move towards the Grand Mosque ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is believed to have run as she searched for water for her dying son before God brought forth a well that runs to this day. (AP Photo)
A police vehicle escorts a pilgrim convoy as they move towards the Grand Mosque ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is believed to have run as she searched for water for her dying son before God brought forth a well that runs to this day. (AP Photo)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, officials prepare for the arrival of pilgrims Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by simulating the first rites of hajj around Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, hours before the pilgrimage is set to begin. The Islamic pilgrimage has been drastically downsized from 2.5 million pilgrims to as little as 1,000 this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic.  pilgrimage has been dramatically downsized. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, officials prepare for the arrival of pilgrims Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by simulating the first rites of hajj around Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, hours before the pilgrimage is set to begin. The Islamic pilgrimage has been drastically downsized from 2.5 million pilgrims to as little as 1,000 this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic. pilgrimage has been dramatically downsized. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, limited numbers of pilgrims, move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
In this photo released by the Saudi Media Ministry, limited numbers of pilgrims, move several feet apart, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The hajj, which started on Wednesday, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)
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