Pilgrimage presents massive logistical challenge for Saudi Arabia
It begins at the airport.
Flight after flight lands at Jeddah's airport, depositing a colourful array of instantly bewildered pilgrims. Flying is now the most convenient way to reach Saudi Arabia, although ships, buses, cars and even the occasional camel train end up at the kingdom's gateway city. Despite its massive scope -- 2 million pilgrims flow into Saudi Arabia over the course of just a few days -- the Hajj is an organised affair. Most pilgrims arrive in groups, through travel agencies specialising in Hajj logistics -- from entry visas (specific Hajj travel documents) and a guide on how to conduct the rituals properly to dealing with transportation, accommodation and language issues.
Small crowds of similarly dressed pilgrims flow past each other, often carrying a small flag or wearing an armband bearing a symbol of their nationality. They scurry behind their team leader, scared of getting lost. A massive arrival "tent" at the airport is the greeting point for transportation straight to Mecca, bypassing Jeddah itself. The gateway to Islam's holiest city features a huge structure arching over the road, marking Mecca's boundary in an otherwise empty desert.
The archway at Mecca, shaped like a large book propped open, represents Islam's holy scripture, the Quraan. From this point on, only Muslims may enter. Many religious scholars say this "discrimination" exists because Mecca was once a city where Muslims -- including the prophet Mohammed -- were persecuted and driven out. When Mohammed and his followers reclaimed the city, it was declared a sanctuary ... a place where every Muslim should feel safe.
In theory, the Hajj -- with its formidable scale -- shouldn't be safe. In practice, it's truly a miracle. It flows quite smoothly despite the congested mass of fatigued travelers. People manage to get from place to place. They find somewhere to sleep -- even, in some rare cases, on the roadside. They even manage to perform their prayers, ablutions and rituals relatively safely. There have been some deaths from crushes in the past, but these have occurred near the tent city at Mina, outside Mecca, due to particular circumstances specific to that location.
The Hajj Research Centre studies the logistics of the Hajj closely every year, looking to improve safety and comfort. Billions of dollars have been spent by the Saudi government to expand the already-huge Great Mosque in Mecca. It can now house more than 1 million people for prayers, but worshippers still overflow into the streets as far as a kilometre from the doors of the structure. Praying at the Great Mosque multiplies blessings by a thousand, goes the saying. Simply being able to see it and listen to the prayers seems to be enough for some pilgrims.
The magnitude of the Hajj also places a steep financial burden on the Saudi authorities in terms of street cleaners, security, transportation, water supply and continued research. In the past couple of years, the Hajj Research Centre has focused on getting the pilgrims safely through the Al-Jamarat location at Mina. Here, three stone pillars set some 200 metres apart represent the devil's three appearances before the prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham. Pilgrims throw pebbles to cast away Satan in the same way Ibrahim is said to have done.
Getting the flow of thousands of pilgrims past the pillars smoothly is perhaps the biggest logistical challenge. A two-layered bridge has been built, with the pillars poking through walled holes in the top level, so pilgrims can cast their pebbles above and below simultaneously. Still, it's in the confines of this relatively narrow area that one person stumbling causes a chain reaction. As the stoning ritual comes near the end of the Hajj -- after a day in the desert at Arafat -- tired, elderly pilgrims are particularly weak. It's these people who have been the most vulnerable in what the media often refer to as "stampedes." Researchers are looking to limit the pace and flow of pilgrims heading to the pillars, to avoid crowds building up. They'll watch carefully this year to see if that works.
Innovations appear year after year. Pilgrims have to cut a piece of hair on completing their Hajj. Men often shave their heads clean. Now large barber shop areas have been set up on ventilation grates, with air vents immediately sucking down any hair shaved off the pilgrims' heads. This should improve hygiene considerably. Fireproof tents at Mina with sprinklers and air-conditioning bring comfort and safety, along with water mist sprayers in the desert at Arafat.
As one smiling Saudi scientist put it, "God said you have to do the Hajj -- he didn't say you have to suffer it."
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