The pilgrimage to Mecca is radically limited because of corona. It is not the first time that the Hajj gets in the way of a plague.
The Saudi Hajj Ministry, responsible for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, has announced a long-awaited decision: in view of the corona pandemic, there will be a greatly reduced version of the Hajj this year. Only Muslims living in Saudi Arabia will be admitted to the pilgrimage, which will begin in late July.
But not only that: the number of pilgrims is also severely limited. Hajj Minister Mohammed Saleh bin Taher Benten said on Tuesday that the number of pilgrims will be in the four-digit range, but will not exceed the 10,000 mark. For comparison: 2.5 million people made a pilgrimage to Mecca last year.
The decision was made in the interest of global public health, “given the ongoing pandemic and the risk that the coronavirus will spread mainly in crowded places and at large gatherings,” it said. Saudi Minister of Health Tawfik al-Rabiah announced that this year’s participants must be under 65 and have no chronic illnesses. All pilgrims should be tested for the virus upon arrival in Mecca. After completing their multi-day rituals, they must enter a 14-day quarantine. Social media in Saudi Arabia is now also discussing the possibility that pilgrims could not travel by bus as usual but only by car.
It is a decision based on concern that a pilgrimage of millions of people coming and going from all over the world would be a global superspreader. Saudi Arabia itself is also currently struggling with a sharp rise in Sars-CoV-2 cases. There are now around 165,000 registered positive cases, more than 1,300 people infected with the virus in Saudi Arabia have died.
But the decision has serious economic repercussions for the country, which is already struggling with the oil price plummeting. The usual annual income from pilgrimage and religious tourism is $ 20 billion – about 20 percent of the country’s income beyond the oil sector.
It is not the first time that the hajj has been disturbed by external influences such as epidemics, armed conflicts or political disputes. In 930, the Qarmatians’ messianic and radical sect attacked Mecca with 1,500 fighters because they saw the Hajj as a pagan ritual. They are said to have killed thousands of pilgrims and spent eight days in Mecca.
The Qarmatians did not stop at the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building in the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Mecca. They tore a gilded door out of it, brought out the black stone that is walled in on the east side of the Kaaba, and took away the kisba, the ornate cloak that wraps the Kaaba. With a loot of supposedly 50 camel loads, they set off again for Bahrain. They later brought back the black stone for a horrendously high ransom.
Differences between the rulers often got in the way of the pilgrimage. Tensions between the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimids in Cairo in 983 led to pilgrims staying away from Mecca for eight years. Later the pilgrimage was disrupted by the overthrow of the Fatimids and the siege of Baghdad by the Mongols.