Muslim pilgrims perform the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, as part of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina near Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, on July 9, 2022. (Photo by Christina ASSI / AFP)

Pilgrims cast pebbles in the stoning of the devil ritual on Saturday, as this year’s expanded Haj pilgrimage was winding down.

From first light, small groups of worshippers made their way across the valley of Mina, near Makkah, to throw stones at three concrete walls representing Satan.

In 2019, some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world took part in the Haj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings.

But that figure slumped to only a few thousand in 2020 and 60,000 in 2021, all of them Saudi citizens or residents, as the kingdom tried to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, participation was capped at one million fully vaccinated worshippers. Authorities said on Friday that almost 900,000 were in attendance, nearly 780,000 of them from abroad.

Barring overseas pilgrims for the past two years had caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.

The Haj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, and Umrah pilgrimages that occur at other times of the year are a major engine of Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector.

In normal times, they generate about $12 billion annually, keeping the economy humming in Makkah.

Virus and heat

After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform a final tawaf, or circling of the Kaaba.

Eidul Azha, the feast of the sacrifice that begins on Saturday, marks the end of Haj.

On Friday, huge crowds of robed pilgrims prayed on Mount Arafat, the climax of the annual pilgrimage.

Groups of worshippers, many holding umbrellas against the fierce sun, recited verses from the Holy Quran on the rocky rise where the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) gave his final sermon.

After sunset, they travelled the short distance to Muzdalifah, where they slept under the stars before performing the stoning ritual.

Covid fears

The large crowds have spurred fears that Covid-19 will spread, especially after many pilgrims remained maskless, despite claims by Saudi authorities that masks would be mandatory.

The Haj has been taking place against the backdrop of a resurgence of cases in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to keep outbreaks in check.

All participants were required to submit proof of vaccination and negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, over 9,000 of them fatal. Some 67 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.

The Hajj, whose timing is determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, can be physically draining even in ideal conditions, but worshippers this year faced an added challenge: scorching sun and temperatures climbing to 44 degrees Celsius.

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