Elderly Muslims perform hajj pilgrimage after restrictions lifted

Elderly Muslims perform hajj pilgrimage after restrictions lifted
Pilgrims aged over 65 were able to perform hajj for the first time in years after Saudi Arabia lifted curbs put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.
3 min read
More than 1.8 million worshippers are taking part in this year's hajj [Abdulghani Basheer/AFP via Getty]

Alsafi Mansur's "lifelong" wish to take part in the hajj pilgrimage came true this year, after Saudi Arabia lifted curbs that kept the elderly away from the compulsory Islamic ritual.

"I feared that I would die before performing hajj," said the 71-year-old Libyan national, carrying his medication along for the trip.

"Hajj has been a lifelong wish for me," the father-of-seven said at Mount Arafat, praying under temperatures that peaked at 48 degrees Celsius (118.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.

The pilgrimage, which costs at least $5,000 a person, is among the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims who have the means to do so at least once in their lives.

But restrictions to contain the Covid-19 pandemic saw Saudi authorities limit the number of pilgrims in 2020 and introduce an age cap of 65.

The measures were finally cancelled in January this year, making way for the largest hajj since the pandemic, with thousands of elderly among the worshippers.

"I feel great joy, and I hope God bestows this experience on everyone," said Mansur, who had been saving for decades for the trip.

Endurance test

The hajj – a days-long ritual that mostly takes place outdoors – is an arduous experience even for younger pilgrims in the summer heat.

At least 287 people have suffered from heat stroke and exhaustion this year as temperatures soared, according to the Saudi health ministry.

Throughout Mecca and Madina, Islam's holiest cities, the elderly can be seen being pushed in wheelchairs or leaning on walking sticks, assisted by relatives.

Paramedics and police officers offered relief by spraying them with water or fanning their faces with folded cardboard.

In the white-tented city of Mina, some even sought shelter from the sun by lying under parked trucks.

Shaaban al-Sisi, a 67-year-old Egyptian pilgrim, said the heat was not enough, he also had to struggle with a chronic heart condition.

"The hot temperatures are exhausting for me. But I won't leave...until I perform all the rituals," he said.

Saudi authorities have dispatched more than 32,000 health workers to help fend off heatstroke, dehydration and exhaustion, especially among the elderly.

'Before I die'

More than 1.8 million worshippers are taking part in this year's hajj, a dramatic increase on the 926,000 from last year, when numbers were capped at one million.

Only 10,000 were allowed in 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, rising to nearly 59,000 a year later.

Many Muslims prefer to embark on the pilgrimage at a younger age, knowing the physical challenges.

But modest finances force others to wait until they can afford it – a process that could last well after retirement.

Sitting under a green umbrella, Fadia Abdullah said she felt "the joy of the whole world" after finally making it to hajj.

"I am living a moment that I have waited a lifetime for," the 67-year-old Egyptian woman said.

Rahim, an Indonesian pilgrim who only goes by his first name, complained of "extreme crowding".

But he said he was still grateful for the chance to embark on hajj for his fifth and probably final time.

"My dream of hajj has come true again before I die," said the 76-year-old.