Makkah residents spoke of their excitement at being able to enter the Grand Mosque to perform Umrah after a seven-month suspension of the pilgrimage because of the coronavirus pandemic was lifted from midnight on Saturday.
“This is the longest period in my life away from the Holy Mosque," said Siraj Khawandanah, 59, who will be among those allowed in the first week after the mosque reopened to pilgrims.
“I usually shave my hair in full once a month, but I stopped shaving it for a while now in hopes to be able to do Umrah and do the ritual of shaving after it, and now it will happen,” said Mr Khawandanah, who like many residents of the holy city, would perform Umrah at least once every two months.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said on Thursday that it had issued 108,041 permits to perform Umrah since a special app to apply was launched on September 27. Of these, 42,873 permits were issued to Saudi citizens and 65,128 to foreign residents.
In the first stage of reopening only people performing Umrah will receive permits to enter the Grand Mosque, with their number limited to 6,000 a day. They will be divided into four groups setting off at six-hour intervals, with pilgrims from each group allocated one of four separate sites in Makkah from where they will set off for the mosque, to avoid overcrowding.
To ensure the safety of worshippers, the mosque will be sanitised before and after each Umrah group, including all the carpets, the basins of the Zamzam water fountains, and all vehicles.
"It's an indescribable feeling. All I can say is an endless gratitude to Allah that we're among the luckiest to perform Umrah on this first day after so long a period. I'm also appreciative of all the efforts of the administration of the two Holy Mosques," said Makkah resident Nadia Abdulwahab, 57, after finishing the Umrah.
Saudi Arabia closed all mosques and suspended Umrah pilgrimages in March as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the kingdom. Authorities decided to allow the Hajj pilgrimage to be held in July but with severely reduced numbers, and only residents of the kingdom allowed to participate as borders remained closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
The restrictions were keenly felt by Makkah residents, who were accustomed to being able to pray at the Holy Mosque at any time and also missed the throngs of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims that usually fill the city's streets.
"I'm very glad - I can't express what I'm feeling - it's like a state of inner peace. I'm used to going the holy mosque every week, and it was quite hard not being able to visit the the last few months, especially as I live just 10 minutes away," Said Dr Batoul Mohammed, 29 told The National.
Rawan Melih said she and her family used to visit the mosque to pray at least twice a month, and jumped at the chance to visit when the authorities announced the resumption of Umrah pilgrimages.
"Since the moment they announced they will release the app, I have been searching for it in the app store. The second it was out I downloaded it and signed us up," Ms Melih, 26, told The National.
She got permits for herself and her family to go on Monday. "The minute we got the permits my mother called all our relatives to tell them the good news," she said.
Since she is not certain when she will be able to visit the Holy Mosque again, she has prepared a list of all the prayers she wants to say when she goes.
The number of visitors allowed at the Grand Mosque will increase in the second stage of reopening from October 18. Permits will be issued not only for performing Umrah but also simply to pray, with the number of pilgrims increased to 15,000 per day, and 40,000 people allowed to perform prayers.
Visitors from abroad will be permitted from the third stage starting on November 1, when capacity will be raised to 20,000 pilgrims, and 60,000 people allowed in to pray.
Makkah resident Hala Dahlan, 57, said the reopening made her feel "as if it is Eid – so I bought a new abaya to wear to the Holy Mosque".
She said the holy month of Ramadan was the hardest time for her this year.
“For the last 25 years of my life I had a routine in Ramadan of going to the Holy Mosque every day after Maghreb and spending the whole night there praying," she said.
"I cried a lot this Ramadan, but now I’m overtaken by joy that I will be able to see the Kaaba again.
“I think the moment I enter the Holy Mosque, I will kiss its floor from joy."