For the first time in two years, Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca is showing signs of normalcy as an estimated 1 million pilgrims gather for the largest hajj since the coronavirus pandemic prompted countries to close their borders.
Clothed in white robes and gathered around the cube-shaped Kaaba, which they are still not allowed to kiss or touch, the first international visitors since 2019 have traveled to complete one of Islam’s five pillars, the hajj.
In 2019, Mecca was filled with 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world. In 2020, 10,000 kingdom residents were allowed to partake at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Even last year, only 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi residents and citizens were able to participate in this sacred tradition.
Weekly global COVID-19 cases are at about the same level this year as last, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, but deaths are sharply lower and millions more people are vaccinated.
That has allowed Saudi Arabia to open the hajj this year to 850,000 international visitors for the five days of worship and rituals. But while there are no requirements to wear a mask or socially distance, Saudi Arabia says pilgrims must be younger than 65, must be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and must receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of traveling, The Associated Press reported.
In order to be accepted for this year’s hajj, pilgrims had to fill out an online application and enter a raffle.
Every Muslim who can financially afford it must make at least one pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, health permitting. Believers travel from around the world to gather around the Kaaba on the eighth and 12th days of the final month of the Islamic calendar to pray.