Truck scale

Pilgrims climb Mount Arafat for the climax of the biggest Haj of the COVID era

On Friday morning, huge crowds of Muslim pilgrims began praying on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia, the culmination of the largest Hajj pilgrimage since the pandemic forced drastic staff reductions for two consecutive years.

The faithful, capped at one million, including 850,000 foreigners drawn by lot, spent the night in camps in the Mina Valley, seven kilometers from the Great Mosque of Mecca, the holiest place in Islam.

In the early hours of Friday, they converged on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his last sermon, for the most important of the Haj rituals.

They will stay all day on the site, praying and reciting the Holy Quran.

After sunset, they will head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars before performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil” ceremony on Saturday.

This year’s Haj is taking place against the backdrop of a resurgence of Covid-19 in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to control outbreaks.

All participants had to show proof of full vaccination and negative PCR tests. Arriving in Mina on Thursday, they received small bags containing masks and sanitizer.

The Haj, usually one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be undertaken by all Muslims who can afford it at least once in their lifetime.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims around the world took part, as in previous years.

But the coronavirus outbreak has since forced Saudi authorities to drastically scale back the Haj. Only 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom participated in 2021, compared to a few thousand in 2020.

sun and tears

The pilgrimage can be physically exhausting even in ideal conditions, but worshipers this year faced an added challenge: scorching sun and temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit).

Many were seen protecting themselves with umbrellas, prayer mats and even, in one case, a small bucket filled with water.

Extreme conditions

“We can tolerate (the heat). We are here for the Haj. The more we tolerate, the more our pilgrimage is accepted,” Laila, a 64-year-old Iraqi pilgrim who gave only her first name, told AFP. in Mecca. before reaching Mt.

Saudi officials have touted their preparations for the extreme conditions, pointing to the hundreds of hospital beds allocated for heatstroke patients and the “large number of misting ventilators” they have provided.

A truck was also assigned to distribute umbrellas, water bottles and small fans.

Nevertheless, the National Meteorological Center, which has set up an office in Mina, sends warnings to pilgrims on their mobile phones, urging them to avoid outdoor rituals at certain times of the day, including noon.

On Saturday, Muslim pilgrims will participate in the “stoning”, the last major ritual of this year’s Haj.

After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform a final “tawaf” or circle the Kaaba.

Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, marks the end of the Haj.

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