Umrah pilgrims return to a Mecca stilled by COVID-19 slump

The first group of Muslims, allowed in the mosque compound by appointment, practice social distancing, as they perform Umrah in the Grand Mosque, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, October 3, 2020. Yasser Bakhsh/Reuters

SULAIMANI (ESTA) — Mecca slowly stirred from a seven-month hibernation on Sunday as pilgrims trickled in after Saudi Arabian 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.

“I pray we never go through the past few months again, 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.

As they 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.

Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the Kaaba, which is draped in black cloth adorned with Arabic calligraphy in gold.

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