The Hajj is the world’s largest pilgrimage, drawing a vast crowd to Mecca every year. It is the fifth pillar of Islam and demonstrates the solidarity of Muslims everywhere. Attending the Hajj at least once in a lifetime is an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the trip – an edict that has seen attendance rising sharply as a result of global prosperity and easy air travel.
The month of Hajj now attracts up to four million visitors annually, posing huge logistical difficulties for the Saudi Arabian authorities. They have not always succeeded in dealing with the vast crowds and the sheer weight of numbers can have disastrous consequences. There have been many serious crowd incidents over recent years, cumulatively costing many lives. The worst accident occurred on July 2 1990, when 50,000 worshippers were allowed to converge simultaneously on the 500 m (1,640 ft) al-Mu’aysam tunnel connecting Mecca to the huge tented encampment of Mina, below Mount Arafat, during the Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifices) at the end of the Hajj. The tunnel collapsed and 1,426 died, mostly pilgrims from Turkey and Indonesia.
In May 1994 there was a stampede at Mina during a ceremony where pilgrims stone three pillars representing the devil. This time 270 died, mainly Africans. A catastrophic fire destroyed 70,000 tents on the Plain of Mina in 1997, probably started by an exploding gas cylinder. After the fire, 217 bodies were recovered and 1,300 were treated in hospital. The following year 118 died during another stampede after police opened a walkway on the Jamraat Bridge, causing a fatal surge.
Sadly, it won’t be the last tragedy at Mecca. For as long as devout pilgrims gather in their millions each year, the Hajj will sometimes be a time of mourning as well as celebration.
When: 1990, 1994, 1997 and 1998
Where: At and around Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Death toll: 1,426 (1990); 270 (1994); 217 (1997); 118(1998)
You should know: Although the casualty figures for disasters at Mecca seem bad enough, some commentators have suggested that the Saudi authorities deliberately understate the totals in order to mitigate criticism of their stewardship of the Hajj – which, in fairness, is the world’s most demanding crowd-control challenge.