Health Desk- 30 July, 2020: Mask-clad Muslims began the hajj on Wednesday, circling Islam's holiest site along socially distanced paths in the smallest pilgrimage in modern history as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.
But this year only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom are participating in the ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.
Pilgrims walked into Makkah's Grand Mosque to begin the ritual with their first "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Pilgrims were brought in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the hajj in previous years when a sea of humanity swirled around the Kaaba.
The tawaf, which involves walking around the structure seven times, was completed in "record time", a security commander told state media.
"This is an indescribable feeling," said Mohamed Ibrahim, a 43-year-old Egyptian electrician who was among the pilgrims chosen. "It feels like a dream," the father-of-three, who resides in the city of Medina, told AFP before entering the mosque.
Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during a series of rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Makkah and its surroundings.