MAKKAH: Hajj pilgrims streamed out of the holy city of Makkah and into the Mina valley on Sunday, launching the rituals of the great pilgrimage which Saudi Arabia is holding in a scaled-down form for a second year.
Only 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom are allowed to take part, far from the vast crowds that descend on Mecca in normal times when the ritual draws some 2.5 million pilgrims.
Since Saturday, groups of pilgrims have been performing the "tawaf" at Makkah's Grand Mosque, circling the holy Kaaba.
After that, they have been making their way to Mina, where they will spend the night. Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, some five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
Pilgrims were brought there Sunday on buses which were only half-filled to respect social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and those with limited mobility.
"We have applied social distancing inside the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We have put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing," tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.
"For the common areas at the camp, like the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread throughout the camp to make sure there is no crowding."
In the high point of the hajj, worshippers will on Monday climb Mount Arafat.
Also known as the "Mount of Mercy", it is the site where it is believed that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) delivered his final sermon. Worshippers will undertake hours of prayers and holy Quranic recitals there.
After descending the following day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil".
The Hajj, usually one of the world's largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
This year's pilgrimage is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but is drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.
"I thank God that we received approval to come, even though we did not expect it because of the small number of pilgrims," said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.
Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani woman travelling with her friend, was among the women making the pilgrimage without a male "guardian", which was a requirement until recently.
"It is a privilege to perform hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims," she said.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.