Middle East Desk
MECCA, (Saudi Arabia): Mecca slowly stirred from a seven-month hibernation on Sunday as pilgrims trickled in after Saudi authorities partially lifted a coronavirus ban on performing umrah – a pilgrimage to Islam’s two holiest sites that is undertaken at any time of year.
Millions of Muslims from around the world usually descend on Saudi Arabia for the umrah and haj Islamic pilgrimages. The two share common rites, but the haj, held once a year, is the main lengthier ritual that is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, which held a largely symbolic haj earlier this year limited to domestic worshippers, has allowed citizens and residents to start performing umrah as of Sunday at 30% capacity, or 6,000 pilgrims a day. It will open for Muslims from abroad starting Nov. 1. Last year the Gulf state drew 19 million umrah visitors. “All of Mecca is happy today, it’s like the end of a jail term. We have missed the spiritual feeling of pilgrims roaming the city,” said Yasser al-Zahrani, who became a full time Uber driver after losing his construction job during a three-month national lockdown imposed in March.
“It was a nightmare … there was barely any work to cover my bills,” he told Reuters. Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Now many are closed, the windows of some gathering dust. At midnight, tens of registered pilgrims wearing face masks prepared to enter the Grand Mosque in small groups.
“This year has been heavy and full of tragedies. I am praying for God’s forgiveness for all mankind,” said Eman, a Pakistani national who resides in Saudi Arabia, accompanied by her daughter. As pilgrims circled the Kaaba, a stone structure that is the most sacred in Islam and the direction which Muslims face to pray, officials made sure they kept a safe distance apart.