It’s one of the largest gatherings of humans on earth.
But this year’s annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in late July will see the extraordinary deluge of 2.5 million people from around the world reduced to a trickle of perhaps 1,000 Saudi residents, due to COVID-19 restrictions. The exact numbers allowed are still unclear.
That spells disappointment for pilgrims from all corners of the planet and disaster for the local economy that relies on them.
Mohammad Tariq from the Cavan Mosque in Ireland said his friends who had intended to travel to Mecca had had their lifelong dreams interrupted. “They were not sad, they were more than sad. Like if someone was preparing to see their Lord’s house and they cannot go,” Tariq said.
With many Muslims saving their whole lives to perform one of the central obligations of Islam, the frustration transcends the feeling of simply having a summer holiday cancelled, according to Sean McLoughlin, a professor of the anthropology of Islam who studies the hajj industry at the University of Leeds in the UK.
“There’s actually quite a great impact — psychologically and spiritually,” McLoughlin said. “In terms of an industry, it’s something that’s highly commercialized and deeply political in lots of ways, but on a scale of the everyday pilgrim this really, really matters to people.”
As the sprawling, tent-covered valley of Mina and ritzy hotels towering over Mecca’s Great Mosque lay lifeless, locals dependent on the $12 billion (€10.6 billion) pilgrimage sector are also feeling the loss.
“Of course, we are disappointed,” said Hashim Tayeb, who has been forced to close his perfume shop in the luxury complex in front of the mosque for the time being. Many restaurants, barbershops and other businesses have “definitely been affected, especially travel agents,” Tayeb said.
Tayeb said the effective cancellation was the safe thing to do, however. A new outbreak during hajj, where millions live cheek by jowl for five days straight, could spell disaster for a country that has already seen more than 190,000 cases of the virus.