From dawn, small groups of pilgrims arrived in the Mina Valley, near Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, to throw stones at stelae symbolizing Satan.

The pebbles were picked up Friday in the plain of Mouzdalifa, where the faithful spent the night under the stars, after a day of prayer and meditation on Mount Arafat.

The stoning of Satan is the last stage of the great pilgrimage which this year brought together nearly a million Muslims, including some 780,000 from abroad, after two years of drastic restrictions due to Covid-19.

This ritual turned tragic in 2015 with a gigantic stampede that killed some 2,300 people.

The hajj, which consists of a series of rites performed for five days in Mecca and its surroundings, is one of the five pillars of Islam to be undertaken by any able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

In 2019, some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world took part, but Saudi authorities only allowed a few thousand residents the following two years, at the height of the health crisis.

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

The absence of foreign pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 had caused deep disappointment among the faithful, who sometimes save for years to be able to take part in the hajj.

– Covid-19 and heat –

This pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings on the planet, took place this year against the backdrop of a further increase in cases of Covid-19 contamination around the world.

The mask, the mandatory wearing of which was canceled in June in most closed spaces in Saudi Arabia, is currently only imposed in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Therefore, a large number of pilgrims did not wear masks during rituals.

To access the holy city, however, participants had to present proof of vaccination and negative PCR tests taken 72 hours before the trip.

No case of coronavirus has been detected among the pilgrims, the Ministry of Health assured Thursday evening.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, of which more than 9,000 have been fatal. Some 67 million doses of vaccine have been administered in this country of more than 34 million inhabitants.

Another challenge: the oppressive heat with temperatures approaching 44 degrees Celsius.

Since hats are forbidden for men during the hajj, pilgrims try to protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas, prayer mats, and even small buckets filled with water.

Women are forced to cover their heads with scarves.

After the stoning ritual, worshipers will travel to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, to perform the “farewell tawaf”, convolutions around the Kaaba, a cubic structure at the heart of the Grand Mosque. to which Muslims all over the world turn for their prayers.

Muslims around the world, including hajj pilgrims, will celebrate Eid al-Adha on Saturday, a festival that involves the sacrifice of an animal in memory of Abraham.

The latter had almost immolated his son Ismaïl before the angel Gabriel offered him in extremis to sacrifice a sheep in his place, according to tradition.