Saudi Arabia is home to two of the holiest Islamic sites - Mecca and Medina. In the city of Mecca, the Kaaba (the Grand Mosque) is where pilgrims from around the world gather to perform religious service called Tawaf. The annual Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj is the peak season when the Grand Mosque is thronged with worshippers from across the world. But the Kaaba is usually packed with Muslims who visit the Grand Mosque for "Umrah" throughout the year.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Saudi Arabia suspended issuing of visas for Umrah, which is usually 15 days to a one-month affair, in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. Now, people have been posting photos and videos of an empty Kaaba, which is a rare sight for Muslims who have always seen the sacred site swamped at all times.

The viral photos and videos of the empty tawaf area around Kaaba, also known as Masjid al-Haram, has also started speculations that the sacred site is on complete lockdown. It is a popular belief among Muslims that taking concentric circles around the holy structure to pray never stops, except for five times a day during the mandatory prayers.

Photo of Mecca during HajjReuters

Fact check

Saudi Arabia officials stopped issuing visas for Umrah to visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina due to coronavirus. The photos and videos showing an empty tawaf area with glazing white marble around the sacred black cube of Kaaba are legit and haven't been doctored in any way. But the context with which these photos and videos are being shared by some people is factually incorrect.

Saudi officials are conducting deep cleaning and sterilizing of both mosques, during which these images have been captured. What appears to be a lockdown is a temporary blockade during sanitization of the busiest and most sacred Islamic sites. The tawaf hasn't stopped in Kaaba as other areas in the Grand Mosque beside the Mataf (tawaf area) are open for pilgrims to take concentric circles around the holy structure and perform umrah. 

Empty Mataf area in Kaaba
Empty Mataf area in Kaaba

According to Saudi officials, both mosques are closed between the evening prayers of Isha and morning prayers of Fajr and food is not allowed in either areas at all times. Also, Mount Safa and Mount Marwa inside the Grand Mosque premise are also closed until the ban on Umra visa is lifted. Water dispensaries of ZamZam - the holy water - in both mosques have also been closed off. These measures are taken to prevent the spread of the virus.

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