Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 May 2020

How can you visit Makkah during the coronavirus pandemic? Through your computer screen ...

With Saudi Arabia’s borders closed to travellers, technology offers Muslims a new way to visit Islam’s holiest city

With Saudi Arabia’s borders closed, virtual reality offers travellers a digital window into Makkah. Pixlr
With Saudi Arabia’s borders closed, virtual reality offers travellers a digital window into Makkah. Pixlr

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many countries to close their borders to visitors, concurrently shutting the doors to religious sites within their lands.

Last week, many Christians around the world celebrated Easter at home, with millions tuning in to watch a live stream of Mass with Pope Francis reciting the homily to an empty St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window of the Apostolic palace on Easter Monday, during the lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. AFP
Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window of the Apostolic Palace on Easter Monday. AFP

Across the Muslim world, the closure of mosques and holy sites has resulted in many imams moving their Friday sermons online. In about 10 days’ time, Muslims will begin to mark the month of Ramadan.

The fasting month is traditionally a time for community and togetherness. It’s also a time when visitor numbers to Makkah increase as Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah.

Ramadan is typically a time when millions of Muslims travel to the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia to visit the sacred Kaaba and attend Masjid Al Haram. This year, travel restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will keep visitors away. Pixabay
Ramadan is typically a time when millions of Muslims travel to the holy city of Makkah to visit the sacred Kaaba. Courtesy Pixabay

Makkah welcomes millions of pilgrims every year, with more than three million people visiting for Hajj, and another two million travelling there annually during Ramadan.

This year, visitor numbers will be minimal as access to Islam’s holiest city has been severely restricted. To stem the spread of Covid-19, Saudi Arabia has closed its borders to tourists and visitors, and delayed preparations for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Using 3D modelling, Experience Mecca allows Muslims to visit the holy city of Makkah at a time when physical visits are forbidden. Vhorus
Using 3D modelling, Experience Makkah allows Muslims to visit the holy city of Makkah at a time when travel restrictions mean physical visits are out. Courtesy Vhorus

Instead of boarding a plane, Muslims keen to visit Makkah this year will have to rely, instead, on technology. And that’s something Ehab Fares, chief executive at digital agency BSocial, is ready to help with.

Back in 2017, Fares’s company launched a virtual reality app called Experience Makkah. It allowed users to step inside the holy city and was the first true virtual reality experience approved by Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR company, in the Middle East.

Nothing would ever replace the real experience, but we thought of sharing a glimpse of what it is like to be in the holy mosque

Ehab Fares, chief executive at BSocial

This Ramadan, the company is gearing up to release version 2.0 of the app, this time on Google Play, and there are plans for an iOS version to follow in Apple’s App Store.

A Ramadan release

The original version of Experience Makkah was downloaded 188,000 times. With travel restrictions in place prohibiting visitors entry to the kingdom, that number is likely to increase when the new version is released on Thursday, April 23, which is expected to be the first day of Ramadan this year.

“Nothing would ever replace the real experience, but we thought of sharing a glimpse of what it is like to be in the holy mosque,” Fares says from his office in Cairo.

“Nothing would ever replace the real experience, but we thought of sharing a glimpse of what it is like to be in the holy mosque,” says Ehab Fares, CEO at BSocial. BSocial
Ehab Fares is chief executive of BSocial. Courtesy BSocial

Using 3D modelling, Experience Makkah allows users to immerse themselves in the holy city. Wandering the religious site, users can hear the call to prayer, stand next to the sacred Kaaba and interact with other virtual “pilgrims” who are also visiting Makkah.

“To be able to develop the dimensions and textures of the main landmarks as closely as their real-life counterparts required meticulous research and studies, so as to reach the best quality possible while avoiding any technical issues that might occur while rendering,” Fares says.

Virtual reality visits

Experience Mecca is available in several languages, including English and Arabic. BSocial / Vhorous 2020
Experience Makkah is available in several languages including English and Arabic. Courtesy BSocial / Vhorous 2020

For Fares, the app offers a way to help bring the biggest religious event in the world within reach of many more Muslims. "It’s considered an educational tool that brings Muslims closer to one of Allah’s most sacred places on the planet virtually, hence resulting in more visits physically,” he says.

This year, with physical visits to Makkah forbidden, this digital window could be exactly what self-isolating Muslims around the world need.

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Read more:

Coronavirus: Pope Francis delivers Easter mass from empty basilica

Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia puts Makkah and Madinah under 24-hour curfew

Coronavirus: Saudi restricts entry to kingdom from UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain to airports only

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Updated: April 15, 2020 04:36 PM

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