One million vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed to perform the hajj this year, after two years of drastically limiting participants due to the pandemic.

At the Grand Mosque in Mecca, pilgrims must perform the “tawaf”, or convolutions around the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in black cloth embroidered with gold, to which Muslims around the world turn to pray.

Many chose to perform the first ritual ahead of the official date, with some waving their country’s name and flag, like a group of pilgrims sporting “Hajj 2020 – Chad” on the back of their white robes.

Tuesday afternoon, men draped in white and women in dresses of all colors marched around the Kaaba, the majority without masks, yet compulsory at the Grand Mosque.

“I just prayed for you,” a green-robed pilgrim exclaims in Arabic, sharing her “tawaf” ritual with family members via video call on her cellphone.

– Vaccine and PCR –

The hajj, whose participants are chosen by lot from millions of candidates, welcomes a larger number of pilgrims than in 2020 and 2021, but still far below compared to before the pandemic.

As of 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims around the world have taken part in this ritual, one of the five pillars of Islam for any able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

Only 60,000 vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom had been authorized in 2021, slightly more than the tens of thousands of participants in 2020, at the height of the health crisis.

The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites performed over five days in and around Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia.

Pilgrims will travel to Mina, about three miles from the Grand Mosque, on Thursday before the main rite at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final sermon.

Because of the coronavirus, the large gathering is reserved for vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65, people coming from outside must present a negative PCR test carried out within 72 hours before the trip.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, including around 9,000 deaths.

– 40 degrees –

The Saudi authorities have set up numerous health centers, mobile clinics and ambulances. Inside the Great Mosque, female doctors stand ready to intervene in different places.

“Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t wait to see what’s next,” Naïma Mohsen told AFP.

For this 42-year-old Egyptian, the “only problem” remains the temperature which exceeds 40 degrees. “It’s way too hot.”

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi leaders, for whom the conservation of Islam’s holiest sites is a source of political legitimacy and aura in the Muslim world.

The hajj, which costs at least 5,000 euros per person, is also an important source of income for the monarchy whose economy depends mainly on oil, being one of the main exporters of black gold in the world. Before the pandemic, pilgrimages brought in several billion dollars.

This year, the hajj is also an opportunity to show social developments in the ultra-conservative kingdom, in the face of numerous accusations of human rights violations.

Saudi Arabia has allowed women to participate in the hajj since 2021 without being accompanied by a male relative.