CAIRO — With their numbers massively pared down for the second year in a row due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, thousands of vaccinated Muslim pilgrims began a stoning ritual as part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
While normally some 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world would be converging on the Muslim holy city of Mecca for the five-day Hajj, this year just 60,000 Saudis and foreigners resident in the oil-rich kingdom have been permitted to take part.
The pilgrims, wearing protective face masks and queuing in groups, waited their turn on Tuesday to throw stones at a row of pillars symbolizing the devil, before chanting "God is great," inside a multi-level structure in the desert valley of Mina, around 7 kilometres north-east of Mecca.
According to tradition, the rite is an emulation of the prophet Abraham's stoning the devil for trying to tempt him into disobeying God.
Upon finishing the stone-throwing ritual, male pilgrims traditionally change out of their robes, shave their heads and slaughter a sacrificial animal.
Women cut a lock of their hair. The practices mark spiritual rejuvenation.
Male and female pilgrims then go to Mecca to encircle the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site housed in the Grand Mosque.
Later in the day, they return to Mina to stay overnight and throw pebbles for two more days.
The Saudi authorities last month announced that only fully vaccinated people aged between 18 and 65 would be permitted to undertake the pilgrimage this year.
This is the second year in a row that pilgrims from abroad have been unable to join the Hajj due to the global pandemic.
Authorities have also deployed robots in the Grand Mosque to hand bottles of holy water to pilgrims and sterilize the sprawling site.
Saudi King Salman said on Tuesday the steps seek to protect pilgrims’ health.
"(Saudi) agencies concerned with serving pilgrims have applied a digital Hajj system aimed to focus on technology and limit humans’ involvement in managing [pilgrim] crowds and organizing the Hajj to ensure their safety and health," he said in a televised address.
Saudi Arabia stakes its credibility on providing services that allow the pilgrims to perform the grueling rituals as comfortably and smoothly as possible.
In recent years, the monarchy has spent lavishly to boost Hajj safety standards and expand facilities at the holy sites.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is a mandatory duty for all Muslims to complete once in a lifetime, if they have the financial and physical means to do so.
During the Hajj, which started this year on Sunday, pilgrims perform the same rituals in a demonstration of religious unity, equality and pursuit of spiritual renewal.
The pilgrimage annually takes place from the eighth to the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
Tuesday also marked the start of Eid al-Adha, a major Islamic festival.
Millions of Muslims around the world traditionally celebrate the occasion by performing special prayers early in the morning on the first day of the four-day holiday.
This year’s Eid was overshadowed by the pandemic too. The faithful were seen in several Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, offering the prayers while observing distancing, wearing protective masks and using personal prayer rugs.
During Eid al-Adha, Muslims honor the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his faith. His son was eventually spared and a sheep was sacrificed instead. Sheep are commonly chosen as the sacrificial animal for the festival's ritual slaughter. However, other livestock may also be slaughtered for sacrifice. Part of the sacrificial meat is given to the poor.