Days after Saudi Arabia officially ceased travel to the Islamic pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina amid a global coronavirus, eerie videos of the empty Kaaba have been going viral on social media.
As the Middle East reported 220 confirmed deaths caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Saudi government has decided to disallow all travelers from entering the holiest of Islamic sites, months ahead of the annual 10-day pilgrimage of Hajj.
A video of the deserted Kaaba was shared on Twitter by a Medeenah.com with the caption, “A sight that could never be imagined”.
And indeed, it is true.
The cube-like black structure of the Kaaba in Mecca is what 1.8 billion Muslims around the world pray to, five times a day. Pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj, is considered essential for every able-bodied Muslims to take at least once in their lifetime.
On an average day, the Kaaba can be seen teeming with devotees and Muslims who take concentric circles around the holy structure to pray.
Closing it is a rare occurrence and the move is an indicator of the severity of the situation in the Middle East, causing alarm in the oil-rich monarchy of Saudi. Authorities also closed travel to other holy sites such as the Prophet Mohammad mosque in Medina.
While Saudi has previously restricted certain pilgrims from foreign countries to enter during previous disease outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a worldwide ban is unprecedented.
COVID-19 has been termed a pandemic with over 80,000 people affected worldwide and the number of deaths crossing 3,000 in China alone where the outbreak originated in Wuhan.
In the Middle East, the condition is especially bad with Iran being one of the most affected countries. Iranian authorities recently confirmed 19 deaths and 139 confirmed cases. However, experts fear Iran may be underreporting cases, causing concern among neighboring countries about the spread of the disease.
Saudi amped up public health protocols in Mecca 2012 and 2013, despite no outbreak occurring. Other outbreaks to have endangered pilgrims include the malaria outbreak in the year 632, the deadly cholera outbreak in 1821 that killed over 20,000 pilgrims, and a cholera outbreak that killed 15,000 people in 1865, Al Jazeera reported.
The ban is likely to cause debate in the Islamic community as well as scholars worldwide.