MOUNT ARAFAT: Masked pilgrims scaled Mount Arafat on Thursday to pray and repent in the climax of this year’s Haj, the smallest in modern times because of coronavirus restrictions.
A tight security cordon was erected all around the foot of the rocky hill outside Makkah, also known as Jabal al Rahma, or Mount of Mercy, for the high point of the Haj.
Pilgrims, donning masks and observing social distancing as Saudi authorities enforce tough restrictions to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, embarked on the climb to the summit for Quranic recitals and prayers to atone for their sins.
Sprayed with water sprinklers to beat the desert heat, the pilgrims raised their palms skywards as they climbed the slopes of the hill where the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) gave his last sermon.
“I am so happy to be chosen among millions for the Haj this year,” Saudi pilgrim Wedyan Alwah said before setting off.
“My lifetime dream has come true.”
The scene was strikingly different to last year’s when a sea of pilgrims ascended Mount Arafat, marshalled by tens of thousands of stewards in a bid to prevent any crushes.
Pilgrims were earlier ferried in buses from neighbouring Mina and underwent temperature checks before attending a sermon in the Nimrah mosque, which was translated into 10 languages.
After sunset, they made their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, where they slept under the stars to prepare for the final stage of Haj, the stoning of the devil at Jamarat for three days running.
It starts on Friday (today), the day Eidul Azha will be celebrated in Saudi Arabia.
The Haj is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. But only up to 10,000 people already residing in Saudi Arabia took part this year, compared with last year’s gathering of some 2.5 million people from around the world.
“You are not our guests but those of God, the custodian of the two holy mosques (Saudi Arabia’s King Salman) and the nation,” Haj Minister Mohammad Benten said in a video released by the media ministry on Wednesday.
This year, the Saudi government covered the expenses of all Haj pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care.
Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the deadliest stampede in the gathering’s history.
But this year, those risks were greatly reduced by the much smaller crowd.
All the pilgrims were tested for the coronavirus, according to the authorities. Foreign journalists were barred from this year’s Haj, usually a big global media event.
As part of the rites which are to be completed over five days in Makkah and its surroundings, the pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat after spending the night in Mina.
A part of Makkah district, Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, and is transformed every year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
They began the Haj on Wednesday with their first “tawaf”, the circumambulation of the Holy Kaaba.
The Kaaba is draped in a black cloth embroidered in gold with Quranic verses and known as the Kiswa, which is changed every during Haj.
Pilgrims were brought inside the mosque in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the normal sea of humanity that swirls around Kaaba during Haj.