A limited number of people circled Islam’s holiest site in Mecca on Sunday after Saudi Arabia lifted coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for months.
The kingdom took the rare step of suspending the Umrah – the smaller pilgrimage that draws millions all year round from around the world – in early March as the coronavirus morphed into a global pandemic and prompted countries to impose lockdowns and curfews to slow down transmission.
But as nations begin to ease those restrictions, the Saudi government on Sunday started allowing a maximum of 6,000 pilgrims a day to enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, and each pilgrim has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage.
The Grand Mosque, which is being sterilised and cleaned multiple times a day, houses the Kaaba, towards which observant Muslims pray five times a day.
Worshippers who wish to enter the mosque for Friday prayers or to perform the Umrah have to apply to reserve a time and date through an online application launched by the authorities to avoid overcrowding.
The Saudi Hajj minister said each group of 20 or 25 pilgrims will be accompanied by a health worker and medical teams will be on the ground in case of an emergency.
State TV showed on Sunday what appeared to be fewer than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several metres apart. Typically, the mosque would be packed with worshippers from around the world crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at all times of the day and night.
The second phase for loosening restrictions at the Grand Mosque comes into effect on October 18, allowing a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 for prayer from among residents and citizens based on allocated times via the app.
Muslim travellers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the Umrah as early as November 1, the Interior Ministry has said.
Saudi Arabia recently began easing some restrictions on international flights.
The kingdom held a dramatically downsized Hajj pilgrimage in July due to concerns that it could easily have become a global super-spreader event for the virus.
In contrast to the more than two million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as few as 1,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.
Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded nearly 336,000 cases, including 4,850 deaths.