Muslim pilgrims walks towards the rocky hill known as Mountain of Mercy, at back ground, on the Plain of Arafat, as they practice social distancing to protect themselves against coronavirus during the annual hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, July 30, 2020. AP
Masked pilgrims scaled Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat Thursday to pray and repent in the climax of this year's hajj, the smallest in modern times after massive crowds in previous years.
A tight security cordon has been erected all around the foot of the rocky hill outside Mecca, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, for the high point of the annual ritual.
Pilgrims, donning masks and observing social distancing as Saudi authorities enforce tough restrictions to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, embarked on the climb to the summit for Koran recitals and prayers to atone for their sins, state television showed.
Sprayed with water sprinklers to beat the desert heat, the pilgrims raised their palms skywards as they climbed the slopes of the hill where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.
"I am so happy to be chosen among millions for the hajj this year," Saudi pilgrim Wedyan Alwah said before setting off.
"My lifetime dream has come true."
The scene was strikingly different to last year's ritual when a sea of pilgrims ascended Mount Arafat, marshalled by tens of thousands of stewards in a bid to prevent any crushes.
Pilgrims were earlier ferried in buses from neighbouring Mina and underwent temperature checks before attending a sermon in the local Namira mosque, which state media said was translated into 10 languages.
After sunset prayers, they will make their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, another holy site where they will sleep under the stars to prepare for the final stage of hajj, the symbolic "stoning of the devil".
It takes place on Friday and also marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.
But only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom are participating in this year's ritual, compared with 2019's gathering of some 2.5 million from around the world.
"You are not our guests but those of God, the custodian of the two holy mosques (Saudi Arabia's King Salman) and the nation," Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten said in a video released by the media ministry on Wednesday.
Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the deadliest stampede in the gathering's history.
But this year, those risks are greatly reduced by the much smaller crowd.
The pilgrims have all been tested for the virus, according to the authorities. Foreign journalists were barred from this year's hajj, usually a huge global media event.
As part of the rites completed over five days in the holy city of Mecca and its surroundings, the pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat after spending the night in Mina.
A district of Mecca, Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
They began the hajj on Wednesday with their first "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large structure in Mecca's Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray.
The Kaaba is draped in a black cloth embroidered in gold with Koranic verses and known as the kiswa, which is changed each year during the pilgrimage.
Pilgrims were brought inside the mosque in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the normal sea of humanity that swirls around the Kaaba during hajj.
The hajj typically costs thousands of dollars for pilgrims, who often save for years as well as endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend the ritual.
But this year, the Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care, worshippers said.