Pilgrims, donning face masks and moving in small groups after days in isolation, began arriving in Makkah on Wednesday for the start of a historically unique and scaled-down Haj experience reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Haj, both 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.
The pilgrimage is a journey that Muslims traditionally experience with relatives. In past years, it was common to see men pushing their elderly parents on wheelchairs in order to help them complete the Haj, and parents carrying children on their backs. The communal feeling of more than 2.5 million people from around the world praying together, eating together and repenting together has long been part of what makes Haj both a challenging and rewarding experience like none 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 healthcare.
While the experience is starkly different, it remains an opportunity for pilgrims to wipe clean past sins and deepen their faith.
Ammar Khaled, a 29-year-old Indian pilgrim who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, said although he’s alone on Haj, he’s praying for those he loves.
“Words aren’t enough to explain how blessed I feel and how amazing the arrangements have been,” Khaled said. “They have taken every possible precaution.”