MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia on Thursday emptied Makkah's Grand Mosque for sterilisation over fears of the novel coronavirus, an unprecedented move after the kingdom suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimage.
State television relayed stunning images of an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Khana-e-Kaaba which is usually packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims.
The move was a "temporary preventive measure" but the upper floors of the Grand Mosque were still open for prayers, a Saudi official said.
He called the measure "unprecedented".
On Wednesday, the kingdom halted the Umrah pilgrimage for its own citizens and residents.
The move came after authorities last week suspended visas for Umrah and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Makkah and Medina.
Saudi Arabia suspends Umrah for locals amid coronavirus fear
Saudi Arabia on Thursday declared three new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of reported infections to five.
The Great Mosque in Mecca is NOT closed, only Mataf is closed as a complete sterilization takes place around the Kaabah. Other parts of the mosque are open. https://t.co/KnxkFif17x— Shiraz Hassan (@ShirazHassan) March 5, 2020
The Umrah, which refers to the pilgrimage to Makkah that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe annually.
The decision to suspend Umrah comes ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramazan starting in late April, which is a favoured period for pilgrimage.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will affect Hajj, due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making attendees vulnerable to contagion.