MECCA, Saudi Arabia
Muslims from across the world poured Sunday into a sprawling tent city in the Saudi desert before the start of the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage, but the number of pilgrims this year has been reduced in part by concerns over a respiratory virus centered in the Arabian peninsula.
More than 2 million pilgrims — about 1 million fewer than last year — streamed from the holy city of Mecca to a huge tent encampment in Mina about three miles away to begin preparations for the hajj with a day of prayer and supplication.
Saudi authorities sharply cut back on visas for groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses as a precaution against a new respiratory virus related to SARS that has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year. The Saudi health minister, Abdullah al-Rabiah, said late Saturday that no cases of the coronavirus infection have been detected among pilgrims.
Further visa restrictions were imposed because of massive construction projects underway in Mecca.
The hajj, a central pillar of Islam and one that able-bodied Muslims must make once in their lives, is a four-day spiritual cleansing based on centuries of interpretation of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims traditionally visit the mosque where the Prophet Muhammad is buried in the city of Medina, and begin the hajj in Mecca with a set of rituals at the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in the city’s Grand Mosque that Muslims around the world face in prayer five times a day. When there, Muslims circle the Kaaba counterclockwise with their hearts tilted toward it.
From Mina, the pilgrims will head today to the area of Mount Arafat near a hill called Jabal al-Rahman, meaning Mountain of Mercy.
It is in Mount Arafat, about 12 miles east of Mecca, that Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad called on people to abolish their feuds and put aside their racial, economic and tribal differences. Some 1,400 years later, Muslims believe on that day and at this place, the gates of heaven are open for prayers to be answered.