The empty Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, March 2020
Ganoo Essa / Reuters

In late February, Saudi Arabia abruptly suspended all visas for umrah, the year-round pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Umrah is less important than the hajj, a pilgrimage that happens in the last month of the lunar year and is required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives, but it still draws nearly eight million annual visitors.

Today, the kingdom’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina—which give the Saudi king his royal title, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—are on total lockdown. Even Saudi citizens are banned from visiting as pilgrims. Saudi authorities will likely cancel the hajj, which is set for late July this year, for the first time in over two centuries. (Though the cancellation has not been officially announced, the Saudi hajj minister is urging people to hold off booking trips, suggesting that a formal announcement is imminent. The

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  • KRITHIKA VARAGUR is a journalist and the author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project (Columbia Global Reports, 2020), from which this essay is adapted.
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