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  • Peter McGuire

The Deadliest Pilgrimage in the World

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Part 6 of a series on human stampedes and crushes

Hajj is the largest global religious festival and the site of numerous deadly human crushes. A review of crushes in 2009 found that half of the 10 deadliest crush incidents happened during Hajj, and that was before a 2015 incident that killed as many as 2,500 pilgrims, now considered to be the deadliest crush ever.

Before Islam, Mecca was a trade center and religious hub for many animist, polytheist, and local religions. In 630, the prophet Muhammed conquered the town and destroyed the many religious idols, excepting a painting a Mary and Jesus and a fresco of Ibraham (who Christians know as Abraham. He is said by Muslims to have built the place of worship at Mecca with his elder son, Ishmael). Two years later, he returned peacefully with pilgrims and laid out the rules and requirements of Hajj. He and his followers considered the pilgrimage so important that it became one of the five pillars of Islam, the fundamental obligations of Muslims. The five pillars are the declaration, “There is no god but God and Muhammed is the messenger of God;” the observance of prayer, tithing and charity; fasting during Ramadan, and completing Hajj at some point during your lifetime.

Hajj is an extremely important ritual for Muslims, who make up about a quarter of the world’s population, and it follows a set of strict rules. Both of these factors make any structural change difficult to effect. Added to this problem is the unwillingness of the Saudi government to confront their failings and learn from them. Because every event is downplayed and blamed on the pilgrims themselves, along with the ongoing punishment of any criticism of the Saudi government, Hajj remains a dangerous and unpredictable event. At the same time, the incredible control that the Saudi government has over the country allows them to implement safety measures (like they have for covid and other transmittable diseases) far more comprehensively than anything a democratic government like India has attempted (for fear of offending religious voters).

The Saudi government has taken a proactive role in organizing and developing the Hajj sites of Mecca, Mina, and Arafat. The event brings in around $8.5 billion dollars of an economy that relies 90% on oil and gas revenue. Controlling these holy sites also affords Saudi rulers a level of control over Islam in general. Hajj is the most important religious event in the lives of both Sunnis and Shias and the Saudis make the rules. This leadership has been challenged in the face of recurring mass fatalities during Hajj, particularly by Shia-led Iran, which wants an international Muslim body to administer the event. So far, the Saudis have refused any compromise.

The pilgrimage lasts 5 days, from the 8th to the 13th of the month. Because the Islamic calendar is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, Hajj moves earlier each year. It currently occurs in July. Pilgrims must adopt certain rules of conduct and ceremonial dress. They first complete seven counterclockwise circles around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped black building at the center of an enormous mosque. The circles are followed by a prayer and a drink of holy water. They then run or walk seven times around the hills of Safa and Marwah, which are now enclosed by a mosque with several lanes of foot traffic on several floors, which turns the once-outdoor trek into an air-conditioned stroll. The division of the foot traffic into one-way lanes helps prevent crushes.

Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

On the eighth, pilgrims put on their ceremonial dress again and travel to the tent city of Mina to pray. The following day, they spend the afternoon on the desert plain of Arafat, praying and listening to preachers. It is not surprising that 25% of hospitalizations during Hajj are for heatstroke. Temperatures in the area regularly break 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in July. After this long, hot day, pilgrims retire to their tents in Mina. For the next three days, they perform the “Stoning of the Devil” where seven pebbles must be thrown at a pillar for the first two days and three pillars on the last day. This must be performed sometime between noon and sunset but tradition holds that it should happen immediately after the noon prayer, which creates an enormous surge at the start of the event.

The “Stoning of the Devil” is the part of Hajj where almost all of the crushes have happened, most frequently on the final day, when pilgrims are rushing to return home, have to stone all three pillars, and, in the past, brought their luggage. In 1963, an overpass bridge was built to accommodate more pilgrims simultaneously. In 2004, the three pillars were expanded to 85-foot walls to prevent pebbles from hitting pilgrims on the opposite side, an increasingly common source of injury at that time. Crushes around the Jamaraat bridge killed 250 and 350 pilgrims in 2004 and 2006, so the bridge was expanded to five levels with extensive ingoing and outgoing ramps. Dr. Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University was consulted in 2004, and while the bridge itself has remained safe, he pointed out that it is only one part of a complex traffic system that needs to be considered as a whole. This warning would prove fateful. In 2015, the deadliest crush yet killed over 2,000 people at the edge of the tent city that feeds the bridge. We’ll return to that in a moment.

After stoning the devil, pilgrims must shave or cut their hair and sacrifice an animal for their Hajj to be complete and successful. For decades now, pilgrims have bought vouchers instead of sacrificing animals themselves. These animals are sacrificed and butchered by authorities and turned into food products that are distributed throughout the Muslim world to the needy. Hajj is completed by circling the Kaaba seven times again, that ritual bookending the pilgrimage.

In 1990, 1,426 people died when the pedestrian bridge from Mecca to Mina became blocked before the stoning of the devil. Seven people were forced off a pedestrian bridge by crowding and fell on the crowd below. Officials concluded that mass hysteria then broke out, causing injuries and deaths. The King stated that it was “God’s will,” and that "had they not died there, they would have died elsewhere and at the same predestined moment."

In 1994, a record 2.5 million pilgrims arrived to stone the devil. After a few pilgrims were pushed off the overpass bridge, authorities sealed it off. A panic caused more people to fall from the bridge and crowd turbulence began. Ambulances could not reach the scene, increasing deaths. Authorities blamed the pilgrims rushing forward for the crush and acknowledged that trampling deaths occurred every year. In response, the bridge was doubled in width. However, the 270 crush deaths that year were dwarfed by the 536 deaths by natural causes. There are hundreds of deaths from exposure, dehydration, and heart conditions each year.

In 1998, around 118 pilgrims died in a crush at the same site. Again, in 2001, 35 were killed during a crowd surge. Again, in 2004, 250 were crushed to death in the same place. Again, in 2006, 363 were killed at the same site. In each of these cases, authorities blamed a surge after the noon prayer and claimed they had no ability to control the situation.

Imams and authorities have repeatedly stated that the pebbles can be thrown anytime between noon and sundown, but pilgrims continue to try to be there immediately after noon.

At this point, international and domestic calls for better safety and infrastructure became impossible to ignore and the government planned a massive expansion of the overpass to accommodate the millions of pilgrims who pass through. It appears that they were successful. No more crushes have occurred at the stoning itself since the 4-story bridge’s construction. However, Keith Still was correct when he said urged organizers to consider the traffic system as a whole. The deadliest crush of all happened in 2015 at a point upstream from the bridge.

For several days, pilgrims live in an extensive tent city where they are grouped by origin. All pilgrims must come with private travel agencies or national delegations and these groups are kept together. The city is composed of wide streets laid out in T junctions, lined by large, permanent tents. This extensive network of roads funnels down to 3 streets leading onto the Jamaraat bridge. At the last T junction on one of these streets, two huge streams of traffic met and became blocked. Later analysis of photographs showed that the crush extended over 1,000 feet.

According to eyewitness accounts, routes leading to the other two major streets were unexpectedly blocked, causing overcrowding of street 204. Some reports claim that military vehicles blocked the street completely, causing traffic to build up at the junction.

What exactly caused the crush and the exact numbers of the dead may never be known for the same reasons as the crushes described earlier: absolutist monarchy. Hajj preparations are administered by the Ministry of the Interior. In 2015, the Minister of the Interior was also the Crown Prince and second-in-command of the Saudi state. He is Muhammad bin Nayef the nephew of the king. Despite being unceremoniously removed from power in 2017, he remains an important royal. Details of the crush will likely remain suppressed as long as the Saudi royal family rules. Per usual, authorities blamed the 2015 crush on the pilgrims. But, as we know, crushes are not caused by the actions of the crowd, but by the routing and infrastructure of the event.

The 2015 crush indicates that more work is needed outside of the bridge itself to keep the pilgrimage safe. No major incidents have been recorded since 2015, so perhaps operational changes have made the event safer. Time will tell.

However, crushes are generally a small part of the loss of life at Hajj. Up to 66% of deaths are caused by cardiovascular diseases. Another 25% can be attributed to heatstroke. A few factors contribute to these problems: Even in winter, Mecca is hot and arid. Visitors from around the world are unaccustomed to the harsh environmental conditions of the Arabian peninsula. Undertaking the 2-week pilgrimage is prohibitively expensive for much of the world, especially as the Saudi planners have focused on building new accommodations for the very wealthy. Many visitors must save up for a lifetime to afford the trip, skewing the average age older (around 50). There is pressure on elderly Muslims to complete the trip before their deaths. While Saudi authorities have long required pilgrims to be fully vaccinated and free of infectious disease, doctors are calling for more rigorous health examinations to qualify for Hajj passes.

Unlike the Kumbh Mela, Saudi authorities have been proactive about covid management. In 2020, only 10,000 Hajj passes were issued and only to nationals, allowing for incredible social distancing in these spaces built to accommodate millions. In 2021, only 60,000 were allowed. This may be a great opportunity to get better traditions in place before resuming normal traffic.

Although there are many strict restrictions on how Hajj must be conducted, ill, elderly, and even deceased Muslims have options. A surrogate can complete Hajj, even posthumously. The prophet Muhammed said, “Yes, perform Hajj on [your mother’s] behalf. Do you not think if your mother owed a debt that you would pay it off for her?” Technology may allow for a new era in surrogates. No school of Islam currently legitimizes virtual pilgrimage, but major mosques in Mecca have rolled out Fatwa robots that allow pilgrims to speak to groups of imams who can pronounce fatwas (religious rulings and consultations). Perhaps, in time, Hajj will become more accessible to Muslims around the world if virtual surrogate options become available.

EDIT: The original article incorrectly stated that Hajj lasts 13 days. It has been corrected to state that Hajj lasts 5 days from the 8th to the 13th. The final paragraph has been corrected to better represent the current role of Fatwa robots. These errors exist in the audio version.

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