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A trickle of hajj pilgrims, where millions once worshiped

It’s one of the largest annual gatherings anywhere, and one of towering importance in the Muslim faith, drawing more than 2 million people to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.

But this year, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia limited the hajj pilgrimage, underway Wednesday, to a sliver of its accustomed size, allowing up to 1,000 worshipers living in the kingdom to make the trip.

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The move dealt a blow to millions of Muslims around the world for whom the hajj represents a once-in-a-lifetime aspiration worth years of saving, planning and waiting.

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In previous years, thousands of pilgrims would simultaneously circle the Kaaba, the holy building at the center of Mecca’s Great Mosque.

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This year, far fewer are allowed at any one time.

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Before, access roads to Mecca were crowded.

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This year, they are largely empty.

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Before the pandemic, pilgrims could touch the Kaaba.

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This year, it’s been cordoned off. Only officials are allowed to approach the Kaaba.

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The kingdom has taken stringent steps to ensure that the few worshipers allowed to complete the pilgrimage can comply with health guidelines.

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Workers lay out lines to direct pilgrims.

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Workers clean the white marble floors surrounding the Kaaba.

Saudi Ministry of Media/AP

Saudi Ministry of Media/AP

Pilgrims who once expected to walk shoulder to shoulder must wear face masks and stand several feet apart; stones meant for throwing in Mina, where worshipers symbolically stone the devil, have been sanitized; and bottled water has been handed out in place of holy water from a communal well, according to news reports.

No travelers over the age of 50 or with terminal illnesses were cleared to attend.

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Pilgrims circle around the Kaaba while following social distancing rules.

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Saudi Ministry of Media/EPA/Shutterstock

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Saudi Arabia has imposed strict regulations on travel to Mecca and Medina. Those arriving, after periods of quarantine at home, underwent temperature checks and coronavirus tests.

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A group of pilgrims arrive in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

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Pilgrims arrive at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

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Workers and volunteers prepare to welcome pilgrims as they arrive at the King Abdulaziz International Airport.

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Saudi Ministry of Media/AP

They would continue to quarantine in their hotels before the ceremonies, the government said.

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A traveler checks in at a hotel in Mecca.

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Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra/AFP/Getty Images

A member of the hajj staff escorts a traveler to his room.

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Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra/AFP/Getty Images

A hotel room prepared for pilgrims, who have to undergo four days of quarantine before taking part in the pilgrimage.

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Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The government distributed wristbands to pilgrims to track their movements. The country has seen one of the Middle East’s most drastic coronavirus outbreaks, with more than 270,000 confirmed cases and at least 2,789 deaths.

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Policemen at a checkpoint in Mecca.

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Saudi Ministry of Media/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A police vehicle escorts a pilgrim convoy.

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AP

Security personnel stand guard near pilgrims as they walk at the Great Mosque.

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Saudi Ministry of Media/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock