Mecca slowly stirred from a seven-month hibernation on Sunday as pilgrims trickled in after Saudi Arabian authorities partially lifted a coronavirus ban on performing umrah.
Millions of Muslims from around the world usually descend on Saudi Arabia for the umrah and haj Islamic pilgrimages.
The two share common rites, but the haj, held once a year, is the main lengthier ritual that is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, which held a largely symbolic haj earlier this year limited to domestic worshippers, has allowed citizens and residents to start performing umrah as of Sunday at 30% capacity, or 6,000 pilgrims a day. It will open for Muslims from abroad starting Nov 1.
Last year the Gulf state drew 19 million umrah visitors.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
At midnight, tens of registered pilgrims wearing face masks prepared to enter the Grand Mosque in small groups.
As they circled the Kaaba, a stone structure that is the most sacred in Islam and the direction which Muslims face to pray, officials made sure they kept a safe distance apart.
Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the Kaaba, which is draped in black cloth adorned with Arabic calligraphy in gold.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter.
It aimed to boost umrah visitors to 15 million by 2020, a plan disrupted by coronavirus, and to 30 million by 2030, according to Reuters reports.