Islam’s annual pilgrimage gets underway with just a handful of the faithful

Pilgrims visiting Mecca this year are physically distancing — standing apart and moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and potential transmission of the coronavirus during the annual hajj in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

As few as 1,000 people already residing in Saudi Arabia were selected to take part in the pilgrimage this year.

The pilgrims are required to be between the ages of 20 and 50, with no terminal illnesses and showing no symptoms of the virus. Preference is given to those who have not performed the hajj before.

Below, the first group enter the Kaaba, the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, at the start of the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Tent city

An aerial picture shows tents that normally house pilgrims near Mount Arafat in Mecca. This is the first time in modern history that Saudi Arabia has barred millions of international pilgrims.

Safety first

A policeman directing traffic in Mecca, during the hajj. Pilgrims are tested for the coronavirus, given wristbands that connect to their phones and monitor their movement, and are required to quarantine at home and in their hotel rooms in Mecca ahead of today’s start of the hajj.

Security officers stand in front of buses that transport pilgrims. Pilgrims are also required to quarantine for a week after the hajj concludes on Sunday.

Physical distance markers

Past Celebration

Physical distancing markers are seen where Muslim pilgrims cast pebbles at pillars symbolizing Satan. The small stones, usually picked up by pilgrims along hajj routes, are now sterilized and bagged ahead of time.

Small groups

A small group of pilgrims wearing protective face masks arrive to circle the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site.

Cleaning and polishing

Workers clean and polish the white marble floors surrounding the Kaaba.

Zamzam well water

The Zamzam well, located in the Grand Mosque, has provided some 4,000 years of almost continuous water supply. This year, pilgrims are provided with water from the well that is safely packaged in plastic bottles.

Praying at a distance

Here, the first group of female pilgrims pray in the Grand Mosque. Pilgrims have been given their own prayer rugs and special attire to wear during the hajj that Saudi authorities say helps kill bacteria. They are also provided with umbrellas to shield them from the sun, towels, soaps, sanitizers and other essentials, and online sessions in different languages about what to expect on the hajj and the regulations in place.

A solitary moment

A woman stands by a physical distancing ring near the Kaaba. International media were not permitted to cover the hajj from Mecca this year. Instead, the 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.

“The kingdom and the world will learn together what are the best ways to mitigate transmission during these types of events,” said Dr. Hanan Balkhy, a Saudi infectious disease expert and assistant director-general for the antimicrobial resistance division at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, who has worked on past hajj missions.