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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. In 1974, 460 Indonesians died of exposure from camping outside during the cold Saudi winter. The days when those kinds of things happened are largely over. Still, every year dozens of pilgrims die from natural causes, diseases and heat stroke and in car accidents or other incidents. The Hajj morgue has space in its coolers for 920 bodies. Out back there a cemetery for burying them. One man who lost his daughter in a stampede told the New York Times, “She is dead now but at least she will be buried in this holy place.”

Before 2015, The deadliest-ever incident at hajj was a 1990 stampede that killed 1,426 people. On July 2, 1990, 1,426 people, many of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis, were trampled in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy sites in Mecca.

The Hajj in 2005 transpired without any disasters. Some heavy rains flooded streets and trapped some pilgrims camped out on the top of mountains overlooking the Jamarat Bridge but they were rescued by helicopter.

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.

Saudi soldiers at Mecca in 1979

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.

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.”

Book: “The Hajj: Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places” by F.E. Peters

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org

Revolt In Mecca During the Hajj

In November 1979, a group of about a 350 armed Muslim radicals, stormed the Grand Mosque during morning prayers in Mecca — Islam’s holiest site. They demanded that one of their members be declared a mahdi, a Muslim equivalent of a messiah. When the chief imam at the mosque said that such a claim was heretical, shooting broke out and the radicals took hostages.

smoke rising from the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979

Most of the radicals were Saudis but there also Egyptians, Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, Sudanese Yemenis, Somalis and one Ethiopian. The group claimed that their aim was to “purify Islam” and liberate the Holy Land from the royal “clique of infidels.” The leaders of the radicals used loudspeakers to condemn the West and their Saudi accomplices and called for a return to basic Islamic values. They also demanded the banning of Shiites from Mecca’s shrines and the end of women’s higher education, television and soccer.

The 26 gates of the Great Mosque were closed and bolted and the radical were sealed inside. Members of the Saudi army, National Guard, and Ministry of Interior forces surrounded the mosque and sharp shooters were placed in the minarets. Perhaps 50,000 worshipers were trapped inside.

The radicals hid in the mosque’s maze of subterranean tunnels. The siege lasted for two weeks and ended only after bloody battles within the mosque itself. Three bullets struck the Kaaba. The minarets were so shot up they had to undergo extensive repairs.

The revolt caused great upheaval in Muslim world community and was a great embarrassment to the Saudi royal family, guardians if Islam’s holiest shrines. An estimated 250 people were killed. The leader of the radicals and 62 of his followers were beheaded.

Fire in 1997 and Hostel Collapse in 2006

In April 1997, around 350 mostly Asian pilgrims were killed and around 1,500 others were injured when a fire swept through 70,000 tents at a pilgrim’s camp near Mina. , outside Mecca. About 150 of the dead were from India. Others were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand. The fire was set off by a gas canister used for cooking and was fanned by strong winds. Officials declared it an accident with no terrorist or political links.

Many bodies were charred beyond recognition. One pilgrim said, "Oh my God, it was horrible. People were running everywhere, but they could not get away because everywhere they went they saw fire." The disaster was blamed on overcrowding. Critics said disasters like this could be avoided if there were community kitchens so pilgrims didn’t have to make their own cooking fires. Afterward , pilgrims were given fire-resistant tents and gas canisters were banned. A similar fire in 1995, destroyed many tents but took no lives.

In January 2006, several days before the Hajj began, 76 people were killed and 62 were injured when a hostel near the Grand Mosque in the heart of Mecca, where pilgrims were staying, collapsed. The building housing the Luluat al-Kheor (“Pearl of Grace”) hostel was made of concrete and was six stories high and only 30 years old.

Stoning of Satan Disasters

A number of tragedies have occurred during the “stoning of Satan” ritual on the last day of the Hajj at Jamarat Bridge in Mina. During the ritual pilgrims are not allowed to cast their stones until noon. When noon finally arrives there is a huge rush to get to the stoning sites. Up until 2004 huge crowds surged toward three pillars, threw their stones and then surged away. Describing the rush, Pakistani writer Akbar Ahmed wrote: “We joined a dusty march 100,000 strong...I was terrified, for the way so narrow...My beloved daughter looked so small and vulnerable. But she fought her way through the crowd like a little tiger to cast stones.”


To prevent problems helicopters hoovered overhead, looking for fainting people. Workers on trucks dispense cold water. Policemen with megaphone pleaded in Arabic, English, French and Urdu for people to move along quickly. Other policemen wield batons to make sure there is enough room for people to escape the crowds.

Unfortunately, sometimes stampedes or other tragedies occur and pilgrims are crushed, pushed off the bridges and trampled to death. More than a 1000 people were killed in the 1990s and 2000s. In May 1994, 270 people, most of them Indonesians, were killed in a stampede at the stoning site in Mina. In 1998, 180 people were killed. Most were Malaysians and Indonesians, many of them elderly. In 2001, thirty-five people, including 23 women, were crushed to death and more than a 100 were injured in a stampede towards on the pillars at the stoning site. In 2003, 14 were killed in a similar accident.

The tragedies have been blamed on a “lack or organization” by Saudi authorities during the ritual. One Saudi official told Reuters, “There is a very high number of pilgrims and a lot of pressure.”

Stoning of Satan Disaster in 2004

In February 2004, during the stoning ritual, 251 were killed and a similar number were injured in a stampede that caused many people to be pinned against a wall put in place to keep them from falling off a ramp. The disaster occurred after crowds got out of hand as they moved along a wide ramp to the stoning site. A Saudi official said the stampede lasted for 27 minutes and rescue operations by security forces and medical units “resulted in containing the pushing toward the pillar to prevent more pilgrims from falling.”

Some blamed the authorities but many also blamed the pilgrims. An Egyptian pilgrim said the security forces “have done the best they could. What can anyone do to handle such a magnanimous crowd? It is the people’s behavior that needs to be rectified.”

In any case afterwards the site was extensively remodeled to reduce congestion and reduce the chances of a stampedes. The ramps were widened. Wider and taller pillars that resembled walls were erected to make them easier to hit. The circular walls were replaced with oval ones that helped people move through the site better, and two new emergency escapes were added. There were no fatalities in 2005 but there was another disaster in 2006.

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Crowds gather to throw Satan stones

Stoning Disaster in 2006

In January 2006, 363 people died in conditions of severe crowding during the stoning ritual at Jamarat Bridge in Mina when pilgrims carrying belongings and leaving the bridge broke through a security cordon and clashed with pilgrims entering the bridge. Ignoring advice to stagger the ritual throughout the day, most of the victims were among the masses who chose to follow the Prophet’s example and do the stoning after noon prayers. Most were trampled to death. Many carried no documents and were disfigured, making identifying them difficult.

Most of the dead were killed at the entrance to a ramp leading to the columns where the stoning takes place. A Saudi government spokesman said there were groups of security men in the crowd but “often the mass and force is too much and they effectively disappear...We effectively had 600,000 pilgrims trying to leave Mina at the same time. Special forces immediately responded to the incident.”

Survivors described trampling people before falling down and being trampled themselves. The victims were from 23 countries and included 44 Indians, 37 Pakistanis, 28 Saudis and citizens from Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

Describing a video tape of the disaster Hassan M. Fattah wrote in the New York Times, “Shortly after noon, the crowd jerked forward. In a few minutes, one or two people had fallen on bags that were in front of them, and soon people began falling all along the entrance to the ramp. Even as a wave behind them continued to press forward. Voices crackled over the radio, there was shouting and the crowd began to look like a stretched-out coil, jerking back and forth as a stampede gained momentum...An hour and half later, when the scene was finally under control, bodies had piled up in layers up to seven deep and included some of the security guards trying to control the crowd.”

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Jamarat Bridge

Blame and Response to the Stoning Disaster in 2006

Saudi officials blamed unruly pilgrims for insisting on performing the ritual at noon rather than spreading it out over the afternoon. The Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdylaziz ak-Sheik, accused pilgrims of being disorderly and ignoring huge notice boards, loud loudspeakers and pamphlets on how to perform the rites. Senior officials said many defied the rules by carrying their bags with them and ignoring advice to stagger the ritual through the day. The Saudi Interior Minster told the Saudi state news agency, “It pains me that so many died, but we must point out that the security forces averted many more disasters from happening and saved many lives.”

Many Muslim blamed the Saudi government for not providing adequate security. One Egyptian pilgrim told Reuters, “There seemed to more security forces this year but they were not very organized or had any plan.”

After the 2006 incident the pedestrian platform was demolished and a new four-story structure was built that allows pilgrims to carry out the ritual more safely. Osama al-Bar, an engineer involved with the project, told the New York Times, “One of the biggest problems was this bridge. After 1,500 lives, it’s finally going down. I’d really like to know who thought this structure up.” One floor of the new structure is directed to absorbing the flow of pilgrims from each end of the valley. Once the finish they will all move down together towards the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Stampede at the 2015 Hajj Kills at Least 2,177

In September 2015, during that ritual in Mina a stampede killed roughly 2 300 people who were on their way to throw their stones at the Jamarat Bridge. According to Associated Press: “Saudi Arabia issued a death toll of 769, but figures compiled from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher. Authorities announced an investigation into the tragedy but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.” [Source: AFP, September 11, 2016]

The stampede at the Hajj in September 2015 was the deadliest ever, killing at least 2,177 people, according to Associated Press, more than a tunnel stampede in 1990, which killed 1,426 people. A month after the 2015 tragedy hundreds of pilgrims still had not been accounted for while the official Saudi toll from the hajj disaster stood stands at 769 deaths. Many of the dead were Iranian. [Source: Jon Gambrell. Associated Press, October 20, 2015 +++]

The stampede occurred at the symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, about three kilometers miles away from Mecca on the third day of the five-day Hajj. The tragedy occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat bridge, which was erected in pervious years at a cost of more than $1 billion and intended to improve safety. Almost a kilometre long, the Jamarat bridge allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual, in which they throw pebbles against walls.

20120509-satan stones  3.jpg

Jon Gambrell of Associated Press wrote: “The toll keeps rising from the Sept. 24 disaster outside Mecca as individual countries identify bodies and work to determine the whereabouts of hundreds of pilgrims still missing. The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since Sept. 26, and officials have yet to address the discrepancy. +++

“King Salman ordered the investigation into the disaster, the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage. It came after a crane collapse in Mecca earlier that month killed 111 worshippers, and the twin disasters marred the first hajj to be overseen by the king since he ascended to the throne at the start of this year. Iran has repeatedly blamed the disaster on the Saudi royal family, accusing it of mismanagement and of covering up the real death toll, which Tehran says exceeds 4,700, without providing evidence. +++

“After the hajj stampede, Iranians protested in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. "The lying and hypercritical bodies, which claim to (be promoting) human rights, as well as the Western governments, which sometimes make great fuss over the death of a single person, remained dead silent in this incident in favor of their allied government," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, according to a transcript on his website. "If they were sincere, these self-proclaimed advocates of human rights should have demanded accountability, compensation, guarantee for non-recurrence and punishment for the perpetrators of this catastrophe." +++

“The AP count of the dead from the Mina crush and stampede comes from state media reports and officials' comments from 30 of the over 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj. Iran leads all the affected countries, saying it had 465 pilgrims killed. Many of the dead also came from Africa. Mali said it lost 254 people, while Nigeria lost 199, Cameroon lost 76, Niger lost 72, Senegal lost 61, and Ivory Coast and Benin both lost 52. Others include Egypt with 182, Bangladesh with 137, Indonesia with 126, India with 116, Pakistan with 102, Ethiopia with 47, Chad with 43, Morocco with 36, Algeria with 33, Sudan with 30, Burkina Faso with 22, Tanzania with 20, Somalia with 10, Kenya with eight, Ghana and Turkey with seven, Myanmar and Libya with six, China with four, Afghanistan with two and Jordan and Malaysia with one.” +++

An AFP tally counted 1,849 people based on data from more than 30 countries. Here is a breakdown of the number of fatalities as supplied by each government: Iran: 464; Egypt: 182; Nigeria: 145; Bangladesh: 137; Indonesia: 129; India: 101; Pakistan: 87; Cameroon: 76; Niger: 72; Senegal: 61; Mali: 60; Chad: 52; Ivory Coast: 52; Benin: 34; Morocco: 36; Ethiopia: 31; Sudan: 30; Algeria: 28; Burkina Faso: 22; Libya: 10; Somalia: 8; Tunisia: 7; Kenya: 6; Ghana: 5; Mauritius: 5; Tanzania: 4; Burundi: 1; Iraq: 1; Jordan: 1; Netherlands: 1; Oman: 1. [Source: Agence France-Presse, October 20, 2015]

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new sprawling Jamarat bridge

Causes and Accounts of the 2015 Hajj Stampede

Holly Yan of CNN wrote: After the deadly crush and stampede “during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, a critical question remained: What caused the chaotic stampede? Among the suggested causes: pilgrims rushing to complete the rituals, heat, masses of faithful pushing against each other in opposite directions, even confusion among the many first-timers on the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Mina. [Source: Holly Yan, CNN, September 26, 2015 ==]

“Hajj pilgrim Ethar El-Katatney, a journalist and blogger, said people were trying to push their way in opposite directions — some headed to the site of the stoning, some coming back from their previous ritual. "As our group started to head back, taking Road 204, another group, coming from Road 206, crossed our way," said another worshipper, Ahmed Muhammad Amer. "Heavy pushing ensued. I'm at a loss of words to describe what happened. This massive pushing is what caused the high number of casualties among the pilgrims." ==

“After the stampede, it took hours for rescue workers to try to tend to all those trampled. "The ambulances, the sirens were overwhelming," El-Katatney said. "For hours and hours, you could hear them constantly." El-Katatney said the sight of the carnage was simply "horrendous." "It's literally a pile of bodies of people who ... pushed, they shoved, they panicked, they screamed," she said. "It was hot, someone fell, others trampled and they got stampeded." ==

Time pressures may have contributed to the disaster, El-Katatney said. "There's so little time to complete the rituals," she said. Journalist Khaled Al-Maeena said he believes pilgrims rushing to finish could have been the main reason for the stampede. "People like to do the first stoning in the morning," he told CNN from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The journey is physically grueling enough on its own. But with temperatures soaring over 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit), anyone who succumbs to the elements might collapse and never recover, El-Katatney said. "I was out for a couple of hours just kind of taking photos, recording. And just two hours standing in the sun makes you so dizzy and so incredibly faint," she said from Mina. "But regardless, people were still continuing to ... their ritual, where the stampede happened." ==

El-Katatney said she talked to some of the men who were caught in the mayhem. "They told me how if you fell, if you weren't strong enough to withstand the pushing and shoving ... if you fell, you weren't going to get up again." Even though Saudi officials are extremely versed in hosting Hajj crowds, many of the pilgrims are making the journey for the first time and might not be prepared to follow all directions or handle the chaos. "If any mistake happens — if a group makes the wrong turn — that will cause a disaster," Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia's El Arab TV told CNN. "And that's exactly what happened yesterday." ==

site of the 2015 Mina stampede

“Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry's security spokesman, hinted that the problem may have stemmed from some pilgrims not following established guidelines, the Saudi Press Agency reported. And novice pilgrims might try to "go on their own, or try to take a shortcut," Khashoggi said. The latest calamity also came 13 days after a crane collapse killed more than 100 people at another major Islamic holy site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. After a stampede during Hajj killed 363 people in 2006, the Saudi government erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge near the site where pilgrims can toss stones. But after the latest mass tragedy, many are wondering what more can be done to prevent another disaster.” ==

Witnesses Blame Saudi Officials and Police for 2015 Hajj Stampede

Some pilgrims say they are afraid to continue the ritual stoning of the devil amid complaints of inexperienced police and a lack of organisation. AFP reported: “The Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, earlier pointed a finger of blame at the dead, saying the pilgrims had been undisciplined and not followed movement instructions, but the witnesses disagreed. “There was crowding. The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one,” said Ahmed Abu Bakr, a 45-year-old Libyan who escaped the stampede with his mother. “I saw dead bodies in front of me and injuries and suffocation. We removed the victims with the police.” He added that police at the scene appeared inexperienced. “They don’t even know the roads and the places around here,” he said as others nodded in agreement. [Source: Agence France-Presse, September 25, 2015 ^^^]

“Pilgrims in Mina stay in a complex of white fireproof tents big enough to hold more than 2 million people, and the interior ministry said it deployed 100,000 police to secure the hajj, maintain safety and manage traffic and crowds. One outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said despite the large numbers, police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the hajj. “They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people,” said Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic heritage research foundation. “There’s no crowd control.” ^^^

“Another witness, 39-year-old Egyptian Muhammad Hasan, voiced worries that a similar incident “could happen again”. “You just find soldiers gathered in one place doing nothing,” he said. He also alleged that he had been insulted because of his nationality, when security men asked him to “come identify this Egyptian corpse”. “Why are they humiliating us like this? We are coming as pilgrims asking for nothing,” Hasan said angrily, urging the security forces to “organise the roads” to ensure the smooth movement of people.” ^^^

“An interior ministry spokesman, General Mansur al-Turki, said the stampede was caused when “a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time” at an intersection of two streets in Mina. “The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims,” he said. And one Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy, saying they had not followed hajj rules. ^^^

nationalities of the victims of the 2015 Mina stampede

“But in the view of an Egyptian worshipper who identified himself only by his first name, Ahmed, “the fault is not on the pilgrims”. “Saudi Arabia is spending a lot on hajj but there is no organisation,” he said, complaining that the flow of people into and out of the tent camp needed to be better managed. “They could make one road for those going and another for those returning,” Ahmed said. “If one policeman would stand at the start of every road and organise the pilgrims, none of this would happen.” ^^^

After the disaster the stoning ritual was supposed to continue for two more days, but some pilgrims were reluctant to do it, fearful of another stampede. Some put their faith in God, telling AFPsaying he would protect them. “Of course we are afraid of tomorrow,” said Hasan, the Egyptian pilgrim. “I want to go do the stoning at night. I asked a cleric, he said it’s OK.”

Hajj 2016: Mount Arafat Ritual a Year after Deadly Stampede

The Hajj reached a high point in 2016 as it does every year at Mount Arafat on the second day of the Hajj when Muslims from all over the world converge on a stony hill in Saudi Arabia. But this year it was different because it was the year after the worst tragedy in the pilgrimage's history.

Associated Press reported: “More than 1.8 million gathered from sunrise at the hill and a vast surrounding plain known as Mount Arafat, about 15km from Mecca. They are spending the most important day of the annual hajj in prayer and reading from the Qur'an. Arafat is the site where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon about 14 centuries ago after leading his followers on the pilgrimage. "I have the impression of standing exactly in front of God, said Khadem Ndyaye, 47, of Senegal."Muslims came here from everywhere and we are all the same. If all the world was like that, there wouldn't be any war. Here, we feel that Islam is a religion of peace." Indian pilgrim Muhammad Arafan, 40, said he feels "chosen by God" for being able to perform the hajj. "It's beautiful to see the Muslims of the world pray together here." [Source: AFP, September 11, 2016]

“At midday prayer hundreds of thousands prostrated themselves, men and women side-by-side, in wide alleys that run between prefabricated pilgrim lodgings. For the first time in years, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh did not give his traditional Arafat sermon. Okaz newspaper cited health reasons, but Sheikh still attended the sermon given in his place by Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque.

“They come from every corner of the globe, but Indonesia - the most populous Muslim nation - has the largest contingent. Under multicoloured parasols to protect against the burning sun, the mass of people move through broad streets which are closed to traffic around Mount Arafat. Throughout the day the faithful chant a traditional hajj incantation, "God, here I am." From a distance, the hill appeared a snowy white from the seamless two-piece white garment, ihram, worn by male pilgrims.

honoring 2015 Mina stampede victims in Iran

In stifling heat, trucks loaded with bottled water were stationed throughout, and pilgrims doused themselves. Empty bottles and leftover meals littered the ground as ambulances patrolled.After sunset they will move to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, to gather 49 pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil which begins on Monday, in the last major rite of hajj. During that ritual in Mina last year a stampede killed roughly 2 300 people who were on their way to throw their stones at the Jamarat Bridge.

Authorities announced an investigation into the tragedy but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken. Among these is the distribution of a bracelet which stores pilgrims' personal data. Roads have also been widened in the Jamarat area, newspapers reported. Pilgrims have told AFP they feel safe and noticed organisational improvements.

Helicopters monitored the crowd flow from the skies, while on the ground, police on foot, motorbike, and all-terrain vehicles directed pedestrian movement. At the sacred hill itself, police sometimes had to use their bodies to block the flow of pilgrims and avoid bottlenecks. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the interior minister and chair of the hajj committee, was in Mina to help supervise "the services being provided to the pilgrims," the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Despite the safety and security measures which Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Shi'ite Iran has angrily questioned the kingdom's custodianship of Islam's holiest places. Iran last year reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its 64 000 pilgrims are excluded for the first time in decades after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian faithful held an alternative pilgrimage in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to an official at the shrine of Imam Hussein. Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it launched a television channel to broadcast the hajj rituals in the Persian language, also known as Farsi, spoken in Iran.

Hajj 2016, Slow Year After the Stampede

In September 2016, Saudi authorities said that only about 1.86 million pilgrims, including around 1.3 million coming from outside the country, are attended the 2016 Hajj, down from a of nearly 3 million people in the early 2010s. The number of pilgrims from abroad fell by around 20 percent and the number from within Saudi Arabia fell by half, said Marwan Abbas Shaaban, head of the kingdom’s National Committee for Haj and Umrah. [Source: Dahlia Nehme, Reuters, September 12, 2016]

Dahlia Nehme of Reuters wrote: “Officials give a variety of reasons for the declining visitor numbers. One of the most obvious is a boycott by Iran, which barred its citizens from attending this year’s haj after diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia collapsed following the Saudi execution of a Shi‘ite cleric. Efforts to find a way for Iranians to come faltered over Tehran’s accusations that Riyadh was to blame for poor safety at last year’s haj, when at least 2,070 people died in a crush. Saudi Arabia says safety has improved over the years and accuses Iran of politicizing the rite with its criticism. Shabaan said Iranians typically made up 7 percent of foreign haj visitors, and their absence did not account for the bulk of the fall-off in numbers.

funeral ceremony for 2015 Mina stampede victims in Iran

He said another factor was the construction under way in Mecca itself, which is designed to increase its capacity to accept haj pilgrims in future, but means there is less room while the building is still under way. “Over the last three years there has been a reduction in the number of pilgrims because of the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques and the massive infrastructure improvements,” he said, also citing “political conditions in some countries and economic conditions.” Wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, which have brought down numbers in past years as well, have worsened this year. Most Syrians and Yemenis now live in territory controlled by warring sides opposed by Saudi Arabia, making it difficult to get visas.

“Saudi businesses catering to haj visitors’ took a hit as far fewer pilgrims and those that came had less cash to spend. Overall, haj-related business was down by half. Those who are still coming have less to spend, said Ali al-Hirabi, who hawks gleaming gold necklaces and rings from a shop in the holy city. “They come, but their situation isn’t like it was when there was peace in the world,” he said. “It’s the Arab countries that are the problem.” Saudi Arabia itself and many of its Arab neighbors are suffering from the fall in global oil prices that has cut state budgets, lowered wages and reduced lavish domestic spending. War across the Middle East has also hit the haj.

Five Die from Swine Flu at Hajj in 2009

In 2009, at least five died of the so-called swine flu (H1N1/A flu), a relatively small number considering the event is the largest annual gathering in the world and is seen as an ideal incubator for the virus. 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. Speaking on the final day of the Islamic pilgrimage, Abdullah al-Rabeeah said authorities recorded 73 cases — including the five deaths — of H1N1 He said only 10 percent of the some 2.5 million pilgrims were vaccinated against the virus. "Our safety precautions have secured a very successful and safe hajj for pilgrims from around the world with no infectious disease outbreaks," al-Rabeeah said. [Source: Associated Press, November 29, 2009]

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Worshippers eat at the Haram in Mecca
Associated Press reported: “Saudi officials, along with American and international health experts, worked to curb any outbreak during the hajj. Health officials circulated among the sprawling tent camp at Mina where the pilgrims lived and gave the faithful cheek swabs for testing later. They also placed hand sanitizer dispensers on walls in the camps, near public bathrooms and at ritual sites, while pilgrims arriving at Saudi airports were scanned using a thermal camera and offered a free vaccine.

“Despite the relatively minor impact of the virus during the hajj, some experts warn there could be cases reported among pilgrims when they return home. Al-Rabeeah brushed aside such concerns, saying some pilgrims have been in the country for almost a month, far longer than the weeklong incubation period. "They've had enough time to show symptoms of swine flu, and that hasn't happened," he said. But he also stressed Saudi authorities will continue to monitor pilgrims until they leave the country, and urged other countries monitor the pilgrims upon their return home.

A total of 2.5 million pilgrims attended the hajj in 2009, down from 3 million in 2008. Swine flu fears were a big reason for the decrease. Saudi Arabia had recommended that the elderly and very young not come because they are more vulnerable to the virus.

Before the 2009 Hajj, U.S. and Arab experts, including Saudia Arabia’s deputy minister for preventative medicine, said in a study in the journal Science: "No region can be considered free from risk." "The density of pilgrims, the nature of the rituals, and the shoulder-to-shoulder contact recommended during prayers provide a perfect transmission atmosphere," wrote Shahul Ebrahim of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ziad Memish of Saudi Arabia’s health ministry. "Haj-related exportation of H1N1 virus by returning pilgrims could potentially initiate waves of outbreaks worldwide and burden health care systems."

MERS Concerns at the Hajj

On the eve of the Hajj in 2014, health officials in Saudi Arabia said they were doing all they can to avoid an outbreak of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus at the annual Hajj. By that time hundreds had died of the disease and the World Health Organization (WHO) said it considered MERS a "public health concern". [Source: BBC, 15 September 2014]

Th WHO warned: "The virus will re-emerge if people won't adhere to behaviours that will protect themselves - such as proper way of coughing, good personal hygiene, avoiding close contact with camels as well as close contact with people who have been diagnosed with MERS." "There are lot of "unknowns" in our understanding of the origin of the virus causing the disease, transmission mode of the virus as well as the behavioural risk factors that may result in infection," said WHO spokesperson Rana Sidani.

MERS coronavirus particles

The BBC reported: “In Jeddah's busy souks some hadn't heard of the virus, while other younger shoppers said they were aware of the disease from government campaigns on social media and YouTube. One man buying camel skin shoes said: "I am very worried, especially when I am in crowded places. I don't know why people here don't take precautions." One man said his mother in law is currently being treated with a neurological condition in hospital and said: "I am very worried, I heard there are MERS patients being treated there as well." "I am scared she will catch the virus, or I will when I go and visit her. The nurses were trying to give us masks and gloves for protection - but really the protection is from God only."

"We've done a lot of work to ensure Hajj goes smooth without any [MERS] cases," said Prof Tariq Madani, the government's scientific advisor on MERS. "Being a virus transmissible from human to human is a big concern for Hajj. We have overcrowding and this is an excellent medium for a respiratory infection to spread." But officials say they have now got this outbreak under control.

Saudi health officials say they have beefed up their response to the outbreak, with better infection control in hospitals and improved surveillance systems such as a new Command and Control Centre in Jeddah, which can coordinate swift isolation and treatment of new cases to prevent spread. "MERS is not an issue in Saudi anymore. We will do our best to ensure we continue doing all we can to have a safe Hajj for all our guests," said the Acting Health Minister Adel bin Muhammad Fakeih.

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome)

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a coronavirus from the same family of viruses as SARS which killed almost 800 people in China and Southeast Asia in 2003. There is no known cure or vaccine, however MERS is not as contagious as SARS. The disease originated with camels and has a death rate of 40 percent.

MERS mainly causes a mild cold in camels but can be deadly to humans. Symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness in breath. It can also cause pneumonia and kidney failure. Nearly 40% of those infected have died. Most already had an underlying medical problem. It is unclear exactly how it passes from camels to people. Scientists say it is probably via secretions from the nose and mouth of infected animals. Raw camel milk could also carry the virus. The WHO says anyone working closely with camels should wear protective gear like masks and gloves. It also says people should avoid drinking raw camel milk.

It is still unclear whether the key source of the virus is camels, or whether it could be another animal like bats. MERS is believed to spread between humans through droplets when infected people cough or sneeze. Although there have been sporadic cases outside Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of victims have been from the kingdom.

Most of the victims who caught MERS, however, didn't pick it up from animals in the desert - they caught it in hospitals. Poor infection control measures on wards meant people who came to hospital with MERS were able to spread it quickly to other patients and health workers. Staff weren't taking basic steps, such as washing their hands between patients and wearing masks properly, so they were picking up the virus and passing it on. Dr Hani Jokhdar said a third of those infected with MERS at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah in the spring were health workers. "When [so many] health care workers were becoming victims of the virus - that made an alert that there's something wrong, this is not a joke. [We realised] we need to stand up and put very strong infection control measures in".

It was after this spike in cases, 18 months into the outbreak, that the King sacked his health minister and other health officials and brought in a new team. It was only then that things started to improve and the number of cases started to fall. Now the health ministry says thousands of health care workers have been given strict infection control training.

MERS first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. As of August 2014, there had been 855 cases, with 333 deaths. Of the 855 caes, 723 cases were in Saudi Arabia, 73 cases were in the UAE and 59 cases had occurred across the rest of the world. At its peak in April and May, 2014, WHO was considering declaring MERS a public health emergency. As of August 2017, according to WHO, there were 2,067 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV globally, including at least 720 related deaths. [Source: WHO The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control]

Image Sources: Al-Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ 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). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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