Saudi Arabia has held the Hajj for 60,000 pilgrims without a case of the coronavirus, authorities said on Thursday.
The Minister of Hajj, Dr Tawfiq Al Rabiah, said complex planning to maintain social distancing and insisting on vaccination for all pilgrims had resulted in a successful Hajj "free from coronavirus and other epidemic diseases".
Worshippers started streaming out of Mina valley near Makkah on Thursday, marking the end of this year's Hajj.
Before leaving Mina, which is known as the city of tents during the annual pilgrimage, pilgrims cast stones at a wall representing the devil in a symbolic ritual.
“I cannot believe it’s almost over. It feels like it just started. I’m leaving with a heavy heart that’s both sad to leave yet overjoyed as my dream has come true,” Hadeel, an Egyptian pilgrim, told The National.
The stoning ritual refers to when the Prophet Ibrahim cast pebbles at a representation of the Devil.
It was later adopted by the Prophet Mohammed and became a part of Hajj.
In the afternoon, pilgrims will perform the final tawaf at Makkah’s Grand Mosque, circling the Kaaba, which Muslims around the world face during their daily prayers.
The Tawaf Al Wada is the final ritual of Hajj, which pilgrims must perform before they return home.
The farewell circumambulation is only for pilgrims who are leaving Makkah immediately. Those who plan to remain longer will perform the ritual later.
On Monday, the pilgrims performed the most important ritual of Hajj as they headed towards the Mount Arafat, where it is believed the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives, if they can afford it.
This year’s gathering is much smaller than usual because of the Covid-19 pandemic, with only 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom allowed to take part.
In normal times, Hajj attracts up to 2.5 million Muslims from around the world.
"For the second year in a row, the kingdom prioritises pilgrims’ health and safety above everything else, without taking any economic factors into consideration," Saudi Arabia's Centre for International Communication said.
"Pilgrims’ health and their safe return is the most important goal of organising Hajj with limited numbers."
Saudi authorities implemented strict safety measures to protect pilgrims from infection.
More than 5,000 workers have constantly cleaned the site, air purifiers have been used and 10 sterilisation robots operated inside the Grand Mosque.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah also carried out safety checks on prepared meals provided to pilgrims.
"The ministry has carried out extensive inspection tours in co-ordination with the licensed and regulating authorities for the catering sector and pre-prepared meals from the Holy Capital Secretariat and the Food and Drug Authority, in order to ensure the application of standards and requirements and the accountability of defaulters," it said.
This year 500 volunteers have been trained to assist Hajj pilgrims in Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, and Taif.
Training was mandatory for all volunteers to ensure they could help pilgrims to cope with medical emergencies and healthcare.
“I share the love of volunteering with my wife, who has also been a volunteer for almost eight years now,” said Abu Khalil, a Saudi national living in Jeddah.
"We are blessed to be living in the kingdom where we can host and serve the pilgrims. It’s in our blood and comes naturally to people of our nation.
“Every year we are assigned different roles and the youth are particularly excited to participate and help out every year.
“There are so many heart-breaking stories I hear from pilgrims when they arrive. I want to change that and make them happy as they leave. That’s our purpose."
Young Saudi volunteers said they were excited to be participating during Hajj this year amid the exceptional circumstances.
“It is part of our religion and national duty to embrace pilgrims all year round and especially for Hajj, which is once in a lifetime for people,” said Aya, a young Saudi volunteer.
"The stories I hear and the feelings they carry with them are overwhelming and the most powerful or rewarding aspect for me.
Summaya, another Saudi volunteer, said: “This year Hajj has changed remarkably since the time I performed it for the first time in 1985.
"We didn’t have any of these services and foreigners who don’t speak Arabic can feel lost and helpless. I am happy to share my experience and knowledge with pilgrims."
Muhammad, a Pakistani volunteer, said: “I speak five languages and am able to help communicate on behalf of [those] performing Hajj from different countries.
"There is no greater cause for me than to help and serve the guests of God."
Pilgrims were guided by young volunteers and even assisted by police officers to their buses.
“I got lost and couldn’t find my group or my bus as it there were hundreds there and I lost belongings," said Samira, a pilgrim from Morocco.
"But this high-ranking policeman walked me all the way to my bus and I was welcomed with cold water and snacks by volunteers there.
"These things you can never forget."