Mohamed Raizwan hardly dared hope he would be selected for this year’s Hajj. Due to the coronavirus, fewer than 10,000 people were able to undertake the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites this year, down from more than 2 million who usually attend.
Now, as he and the other lucky few called to take part in the smallest Hajj in living memory head home, he’s awestricken by the experience.
“This has been the best time in my entire life,” the 29-year-old Sri Lankan said, sitting in the shade of Makkah’s Holy Mosque as the setting sun signalled the start of the Maghreb prayer on Sunday.
“I truly felt blessed with this Hajj, never in my life did I think I would experience something like this, it was such a peaceful Hajj.”
At the end of the five-day journey, pilgrims departed from Makkah for their homes across the kingdom, closing Hajj as they began it – with a seven-day isolation to ensure none have caught Covid-19.
But, with no cases detected yet authorities are cautiously celebrating the success of the effort to hold a safe Hajj despite a global pandemic.
"With God's help, then adhering to all health measures we had put in place, we are happy to say that Hajj this year didn't record any Covid-19 cases," Hamed Fehaan, the spokesperson for Makkah Health Authority told The National.
"Now it is time for the third stage of the plan," he said, explaining that pilgrims will remain in isolation at home for seven days.
Saudi authorities implemented a series of stringent health measures this year to enable Hajj to go ahead as it battles the coronavirus pandemic. Face masks were made mandatory and pilgrims were screened on arrival then required to wear electronic bracelets to ensure isolation was maintained during quarantine periods.
Changes were also made to a number of practices, including touching the Kaaba, which was banned this year to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Normally, people come from all over the world to take part in Hajj, but this year only a select group of Saudi residents and citizens were granted permission to attend, with priority given to those serving on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
More than 279,000 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the outbreak, but no infections were recorded during Hajj.
Pilgrims were required to maintain social distancing at all times and health experts accompanied each group to advise on preventive measures.
The final Tawaf, in which pilgrims circle the Kaaba, took place on Sunday to the sounds of the Azan. Walking in neat lines along coloured pathways to ensure the correct social distance, the pilgrims presented a very different picture to the crowds that usually gather for this holy ritual.
Most people who come to Makkah for Hajj join one of the largest gatherings of people worldwide to perform the fifth and final pillar of Islam. For Mr Raizwan and those who undertook the journey alongside him in 2020, the experience has been all the more unique. The summer heat and the huge crowds usually make the long days and short nights a tiring journey.
"This had been a great chance for me, I never expected Hajj to be like this when I [came to] perform it; I always thought when I do it will be with much hardship,” he said.