HAJJ NUMBERS AND LOGISTICS
Main control room for security As we said before the Hajj is regarded as the largest annual gathering in the world. About 2.5 million people did it in 2009. It is estimated that the Hajj pilgrims spend about $2 billion during the Hajj. Around 1 million prepared meals are given out at 1,500 centers. Thirty-five bakeries bake 5 million loaves of bread. Ice factories producer 1.5 million blocks of ice a day. In 2005, more than 20,000 buses were used to transport pilgrims from the Mina Valley to Mount Arafat.
The huge numbers posted these days are a relatively recent phenomena. Only 50,000 people did the Hajj in 1950. About 300,000 did it in 1965; and 400,000 did it in 1975. In the 2000s, between 2 million and 2.5 million pilgrims from up to 160 nations have taken part each year. There were 1.8 million including 1.3 million foreigners in 2001; 2.04 million in 2003; and around 2 million in 2004 . A record 2.56 million, including 1.53 million foreigners, did the Hajj in 2005. Of the 500,000 additional pilgrims from the year before about 20 percent were pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia and 80 percent were Saudis or people living in Saudi Arabia.
Pilgrims on Arafat Typically pilgrims go to the Hajj in large groups organized by specialty travel agencies sort of like those that arrange package tours for the Olympics or the World Cup soccer tournament. For some the Hajj is quite profitable. A typical Hajj package tour costs around $5,000. Cheap ones go for around $2,000 but require pilgrims to stay in same sex dormitories with strangers. People living in Saudi Arabia can sometimes do it more cheaply. Rich pilgrims like those from oil-rich United Arab Emirates spend around $7000 per each for luxurious accommodation. Many pilgrims are led by professional guides. Some pilgrims bring things like carpets and jewelry to sell and use they money to cover their expenses.
The number of pilgrims is restricted by a quota system established by the Saudi government that keeps the number at around 2 million or 2.5 million by issuing one Hajj visa for every 1,000 Muslims in any country.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Traveling to the Hajj and Hajj Caravans
Muhammad, Majmac-al-Tawarikh About 1 million pilgrims arrive by land, with about two thirds of these coming from within Saudi Arabia. More than 1.5 million people arrive by plane on 5,000 or so flights that arrive mostly at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. During the Hajj regular flights are suspended while special pilgrim flights operate around the clock. Saudi Arabian Airlines alone carries about 555,000 passengers from around the world. The Saudi government sets a deadline for pilgrims arriving by air to maintain some order. Even so clearing customs can take 16 hours or more.
Some airplanes go to and from Mecca almost 24 hours a day. My sister in law worked as a stewardess for Saudi Airlines, and said around the time of Hajj she barely had time to sleep while the planes ferried pilgrims to Jeddah airport nearly non-stop. I was once on a plane that stopped for refueling in Jeddah during the Hajj. It was very strange watching hundreds of toga-clad pilgrims climb off of 747's and step into ultra-modern buses at the mega-modern airport.
Some Muslims argue that charter flights have had devalued the pilgrimage by making it too easy. They advocate a return to the more arduous and challenging overland journey which they say is more spiritually enriching.
In 1876 an English journalist named Charles Doughty joined a Hajj caravan with 6,000 pilgrims and 10,000 animals on its journey south from Damascus. Muslims who died on the trek, he said, were buried under mounds covered by the blankets and clothes that belonged to the dead. Beside some graves were left makeshift tables used to wash the bodies before they were buried.
Describing the start of the caravan, Doughty wrote: “The tents were dismantled, the camels led in ready to their companies, and halted beside their loads. We waited to hear the cannon shot which should open the year’s pilgrimage. It was near ten o’clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder, litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts...and the thousands of riders, all born in the caravan countries, mounted in silence...At the second gun, fired a few moments after, the Pasha’s litter advances and after him goes the head of the caravan column...then we strike our camels and the great caravan is moving.”
Hajj Pilgrim Daily Life
Baskin Robbins in the Holy City Despite all the people and all the hassles, pilgrims say there is no crime or ill tempers. People are helpful and call everyone brother and sister. Food that is brought is offered to everyone. People help each other carry their bags. Shop owners are so unworried about theft they place piles of money on the ounter instead of in their registers.
Bazaars sell everything from prayer rugs to cell phones. Local merchants often do more business in the Hajj season than they do the rest of the year. The most plentiful kind of food is dates, which are offered in hundreds of varities in shops, souks and from vendors. During prayer time, faithful with prayers rugs turn them sideways and share them with faithful who don’t have them. Many pilgrims line up to get a haircut after circling the Kaaba for the final time to mark the end of the Hajj.
Pilgrims often move from place to place in the middle of the night to avoid traffic jams, which are caused by hundreds of thousands of people doing the same thing at the same time and having to go to the same place to do it. Fearless of getting lost or separated individuals often stay close to their tour group. Often members of the groups become very close and stay in contact after the Hajj is over.
The sun is very bright and direct. Many women carry umbrellas. Men and women are jammed side by by side—a shock for some pilgrims who come from societies where women and men are strictly segregated. Many pilgrims say they experience a sense of freedom that they don’t find in their home countries. They feel freer to express their feelings, voice opinion and discuss controversial subjects openly.
Rich Muslims stay in hotels that charge hundreds and even thousands dollars a night for a room. The super-luxurious Mecca Inter-Continental Hotel has its own mosque, and each balcony has markings that indicate where guests should stand during the five daily prayers. Sometimes it is necessary to book these rooms years in advance. Most pilgrims obviously can't afford to stay at these hotels. The poorer ones sleep in tents pitched in the hills or lay out their prayers rugs and sleep on the dusty streets and sidewalks. Small hotels can be so packed that some guests have to sleep on the roofs.
To Mina The Ottoman sultans were guardians of Mecca and Medina for nearly 350 years until they were thrown out of Arabia around the time of World War I. Today the Saudi Arabian royal family bears this responsibility. With money generated from oil revenues, the Saudis have spent $25 billion over the years clearing away run down neighborhoods, building hotels and residences, and enlarging mosques to help accommodate all the Hajj pilgrims. Over $100 million alone has been spent enlarging the Sacred Mosque. Much of the money is believed to be have gone for “commissions” to the Saudi royal family. Much of the construction and maintenance work for the Hajj is done by the Saudi BinLaden Group, the construction company founded by Osama bin Laden’s father.
Since entry into Mecca is restricted to Muslims only. German and French technicians, who oversaw the construction of some Mecca hotels there had to monitors their work crews with closed circuit television cameras and supervise them with cell phones, radios and walkie talkies. In the 1990s, United Automation, a Los-Angeles-based company, was hired to install sound system in mosques in Mecca. Most of the project was completed by American engineers in a warehouse in California because the engineers were barred from entering Mecca. A team of Muslim tacticians had to be flown to Los Angeles to learn how to install and run the system. Because no noise can be transmitted over the system except for the voice of an imam reading the from the Koran as part of his duties a system was devised to test the speakers without sound.
To accommodate the large number of pilgrims that arrive during the Hajj, multi-lane roads have been built between Mecca and Arafat and a new airport was erected in Jeddah, 75 kilometers from Mecca. An eight-lane superhighway connects Jeddah with Mecca. The Saudi government has also built housing centers and drilled wells for drinking water. Pilgrims that arrive at the airport are carried to Mecca in double decker buses. Handicapped people are provided with electric wheelchairs and special elevators.
The huge influx of people during the Hajj triples the population of Mecca to between two or three million, straining the water supply and other facilities. During the Hajj, field hospitals are erected and facilities are set up for distributing food and water and providing phone service. Water is given out free from refrigerated truck to prevent dehydration. During the climbing of Mount Arafat the government distributes bottles of water and box lunches.
Saudi security forces on parade Massive security and manpower is needed to keep the huge influx of pilgrims reasonably safe and protected and things running smoothly. Security forces specially trained for the Hajj are deployed. Health education videos are shown flights to Mecca. Ambulances and helicopters are situated in strategic locations. Crowds are monitored with closed circuit cameras. The Ministry of Pilgrimage is the government body that sorts everything out.
About 100,000 employees and volunteers and 50,000 soldiers and security personnel work the Hajj each year. Saudi police have complete authority over pilgrims. Thousands are positioned at the sacred sites and along the route from Mecca to Mina. Roadblocks are set up on all the major roads to the city. Political activity and protests are not tolerated. In 2006, 60,000 security offers were deployed by Saudi Arabia to handle crowds and avert attacks by Islamic militants.
Each pilgrim needs a permit. In Jeddah pilgrims stop at the Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs and Religious Trusts to register and file a petition of intent and are issued a permit. Most pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia with a special pilgrim visas given out during the Hajj. On the highway between Jeddah and Mecca the pilgrims clear checkpoints manned by soldiers who check visas and permits to make sure all the paperwork is in order. Signs in English and Arabic read: RESTRICTED AREA, MUSLIMS ONLY PERMITTED.
Hajj Health Problems and Accidents
Hajj quality control At one time the Hajj was ravaged by epidemics of small pox, cholera and malaria spread by the crowded and unsanitary conditions. To combat contagious disease the Saudi Government installed mobile hospitals and portable toilets, and made sure there was an abundant supply of pure water. Over the last couple of decades most of the hajj's problems have been caused by the massive numbers of people.
Many problems have occurred in Mina, particularly at Satan stoning site. There security personal have devises, special indicators and systems to measure the number of pilgrims at different locations and to help with crowd control, as well as a variety of tools to manage the flow of people.
In 1997, Saudi Arabia limited the number of Nigerians participating in the Hajj because of an outbreak of meningitis in Nigeria. In 2006, the Saudi government purchased $6.7 million on Tamiflu to be ready if there was a bird flu outbreak. At that time the disease had killed people in the Muslim countries of Turkey and Indonesia.
In 2009, at least five died of the so-called swine flu (H1N1/A flu), a relatively small number considering the size of the event. Authorities recorded 73 cases of the disease and said only 10 of the 2.5 million pilgrims at the Hajj had been vaccinated. Health officials circulated among the tent camps in Mina and conducted swab tests. The also placed hand sanitizers by the wells in camps, near public bathrooms and at ritual sites. Pilgrims arriving at the airport were scanned with a thermal cameras and offered the vaccine.
Worshippers eat at the Haram What makes logistics so hard is not so much the large number of people but the fact they all have to be moved around simultaneously at a set time, along stations, spanning about 15 kilometers. After an incident in 2006 left 363 dead Osama al-Bar, director of the Hajj Research Center at Umm al-Qura University, told the New York Times, “There’s an incident every two years now. When you get 300,000 people seeking to move all at once, accidents are bound to happen, and they are quickly magnified...You can never predict the problems of the Hajj. At one point it was the flow of people, and we solved it. Then this problem came up. Our job is to keep plugging the holes.”
Sami Anagawi, a prominent architect who founded he Hajj research Center in the 1970s, told the New York Times that Bar’s solutions tend to deal only with symptoms rather than the underlying causes which have more to do with people management than construction. “The Hajj is a complete system, and must be approached as a system, a flow,” he said. “What they do is concentrate and do a project, and put their hopes in that project until something wrong happens, But all that happens is this project creates new issues....The three main variables in arranging the Hajj are density, space and time. So far all they have been dealing with is space.”
Recent Mecca Development
Hajj trash In recent years Mecca and the area around the Grand Mosque have been overhauled, redeveloped and heavily commercialized. High-rise hotels and apartment blocks now dominate the Mecca skyline. Sites of important events in Islam have been paved over to make way for shopping malls with branches of Starbucks, the Body Shop, Cinnabun and Top Shop. As the number of pilgrims making the Hajj has swelled to nearly 3 million, new investors with an eye for profit have entered the scene, A special effort is being made lure to wealthier pilgrims, with people with links to the Saudi royal family allegedly set to profit the most.
The Saudi Arabia British Bank has estimated that about $5 billion a year is being spent on construction and infrastructure in Mecca, About 120 skyscrapers are currently going up. These include the Abraj al-Bait Towers, which will be one of the biggest buildings in the world. Only meters from the Kaaba, it has seven 30-story-high towers that will hold a 2,000-room hotels, a convention center built to hold 1,500 people, heliports and a four-story shopping mall. When it is completed it will have 1.45 million square meters of floor space, twice that of the Pentagon. “Abraj al-Bait” is Arabic for “Tower of God.”
The famed architect Norman Foster and several foreign architectural firms have been placed in charge of redeveloping the area around Grand Mosque to make it more accommodating to millions of Muslim pilgrims and visitors that come to the city and the mosque every year. The plan calls for initially expanding the capacity of the mosque to around 1 million in the first phase of development and eventually making it large enough to welcome 3 million people.
Objections to Mecca Development and Lost Historical Sites
Not everyone like the changes. Among the biggest critic is Sami Angawu, an expert on Islamic architecture in Mecca and Medina, who objects to the way historic sites have been demolished and the fact that “outsiders” and mon-Muslims who can’t even enter Mecca are spearheading the plan. “When you design a mosque, you need to be able to experience it,” he told the Times of London . On all the development he told AP, “Everyday you can ses the buildings becoming bigger and bigger and higher and higher...To me Mecca is not a city. It is a sanctuary. It is a place of diversity and tolerance....Unfortunately it isn’t anymore.” Dissenting voices were not loudly heard in Saudi Arabia as opposition to decisions by the King and his advisors are not welcomed.
Among the historical and religious sites and buildings that have been lost or paved over are the house of Mohammad’s first wife Khadija—where Muslims believe the prophet received some of the first revelations of the Koran—and Dar- al-Arqam, the school where Mohammed was taught, and the house where Mohammed was born. A 200-year-old fort built by the Ottoman on a hill overlooking the Kaaba, to protect the holy sites, was torn down to make way for a multimillion-dollar housing complex for pilgrims.
Some Islamists have not been unhappy to see the historical sites go. In their eyes they promoted idolatry. They encouraged the house where Mohammed is believed to have been born to be torn down. The library that was built on top of it in the 1930s was a compromise to appease Wahhabi clerics. The Khadja and the Dar- al-Arqam disappeared when the Grand Mosque was expanded in the 1980s. At Hira’s Cave, where Mohammed; is believed to have received the first verses of the Koran in the mountains on the edge of Mecca signs posted by Wahhabi religious police warn pilgrims not to pray or “touch stones to be blessed.”
In Medina the only shrine to have survived the Wahhabi anti-idolatry campaign is Mohammed’s tomb. There, religious police bar visitors from praying in the tomb chamber or touching the silver cage around it. Among the historical sites destroyed there were the baqi, a large cemetery where tombs of several of the prophet’s wives, daughters, as many as six grandsons and Shiite saints were once located. Grave markers at the site have been bulldozed away . Religion police open the site once a day to let in male pilgrims. Visitors are not allowed to pray. One Indian pilgrim who cried because he was not allowed to pray told AP: “It is pretty sad that our imam do not have tomb stones to tell where they are buried. They deserve a shrine as monumental as Taj Mahal.”
Image Sources: Al-Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011