A stampede that caused a large number of deaths ocurred at the capital of Isam, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia in 2015 during the Hajj. This sample essay will describe the stampede, and the causes.
The 2015 stampede in Mecca
After an initial estimated death toll of 700, the Associated Press has released a number over twice the original Saudi casualty estimate. The current total of reported deaths is 1,453 placing it atop the list of deadliest events during the hajj. Officials from nineteen countries reported deaths during the annual pilgrimage which accounts for the new total.
The majority of those killed were Iranian with 465 Iranians lost in the stampede, followed by 148 Egyptian deaths and Indonesia losing 120 nationals.
As one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in which all males within the faith must make at least once during their lives. It is thought to be the largest gathering of people for a single occasion ever held on earth. The event is held during the last month of the Islamic calendar and lasts from five to seven days, during which hundreds of thousands of believers make the journey into the holy land.
Historically pilgrims have made the journey in large caravans, however the emergence of air travel as a viable means of transportation compounded by airlines increasing the number of flights available during the Hajj has led to the steep increase in annual attendants. Over the past century the number of pilgrims arriving in Saudi Arabia each year has increased by nearly 2,900 percent. This equates to a potential of six to seven individuals per square meter, often preventing any free movement amongst the attendants. This massive influx of pilgrims each year has increased concerns of safety and crowd management.
Complicating the management of these crowds are the necessary rituals that are performed during the course of the weeklong event. Pilgrims must take part in each ritual in order to complete the Hajj successfully. Some of these rituals include walking around the Ka’aba seven times in a counterclockwise direction. The Ka’aba is the large building that represents the direction of all prayer in the Muslim faith. A run between to small hills located Mecca, the Al-Safa and the Al-Marwah, as well as taking a drink from the ZamZam, a holy well in Mecca.
One of the most dangerous rituals is the stoning of the devil, a symbolic ritual in which pilgrims throw stones at three pillars amongst thousands of other pilgrams. The nature of the rituals include a significant amount of movement throughout Mecca and the surrounding areas which makes managing the logistically flow of individuals extremely complex.
The faith does allow for the completion of these rituals at other times of the year, but these are recognized as a partial, or lesser, pilgrimage. Referred to as the Umrah, the completion of the rituals are not a substitute for participating in the Hajj at some point in a Muslim’s life.
Logistical planning of the Hajj
The Saudi Arabian government is tasked with accommodating the millions of pilgrims that attend the Hajj each year. In the last 60 years the country has reportedly spent over $1 billion to add additional facilities to house and provide amenities to pilgrims during the weeks leading up to and during the event. The government has been responsible for addressing issues such as the housing needs of the millions of temporary residents.
In addition to this the government has developed additional ways to provide transportation as well as updating the roadways and infrastructures. The sanitation and medical needs of the masses have also been a cause of concern and the government has continued to establish programs and facilities to handle these issues. In an effort to control numbers, the Saudi Arabian government has provided other countries with quotas and limitations on the number of pilgrims that may attend each year. These efforts have assisted in keeping the level of participants at a more manageable level.
The major effort for ensuring the safety of crowds has come from the flexibility of the faith to alter rituals in a way that protects the pilgrims from additional risks. The necessity to kiss the Black Stone each time they circle the Ka’aba has been altered to allow pilgrims to simply point to the stone each time, preventing the crowds from converging in a single spot each time.
In addition, because of concerns of hydration in the heat of the Saudi dessert, pilgrims are encouraged to complete only the first three circles of ritual at a hurried pace and then walk the last four. Traditionally the run is completed on the ground surrounding the building, but due to crowds both the interior corridors and the roof are now acceptable places to complete the ritual. The elimination of the requirement to sit nearest the Kaaba during prayer has assisted in crowd management with pilgrims encouraged to sit anywhere in the Mosque to complete the prayer ritual.
In 2004, the ritual referred to as the Stoning of the Devil changed dramatically with the creation of long stone walls, replacing the three traditional pillars on which the pilgrims cast stones. Now the pilgrims cast their seven stones alone the wall and into a large basin that functions as a reservoir for all of the stones. Multi-level ramps were installed to access the stone wall with safety railings and exits from the facility in several places. These efforts have succeeded in stifling injuries due to overcrowding and the potential for injury due to stones being thrown from all directions at a single pillar.
The creation of facilities for the elderly and disabled has been well received and a much needed addition to the Hajj. These include additional walkways to and from each ritual reserved for those who are unable to proceed at the normal pace of the crowd and access ramps where previously only stairs had existed. However, even with the most diligent preparation, managing a crowd of close to three million people is not always possible.
Deadly history of Mecca
The recent stampede is not the first event that lead to massive casualties during religious events surrounding Mecca. Although many precautions have been taken, there have been thousands of lives lost in the last century due to disease, fires, infrastructure and crowd related issues. In the last 20 years the death toll has increased dramatically.
Other deadly incidents at Mecca
- In 1990 nearly 1,400 pilgrims from visiting countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia were killed within a pedestrian tunnel walkway leading away from Mecca towards the site of one of the necessary rituals completed during the pilgrimage.
- In 1994 a stampede killed over 270 pilgrims while they took part in the ritual of the Stoning of the Devil
- in 1998 at least 360 attendants were killed or seriously injured during a crowding incident on the Jamarat Bridge.
- In one of the deadliest events in the history of the Hajj, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled within a tunnel utilized to travel to Mina from the center of Mecca.
- Several incidents during the Stoning of the Devil in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
These events prompted the adjustment of the ritual and installation of the massive stone walls that replaced the pillars.
- Even with these precautionary measures in place an additional 346 pilgrims were killed at the Stoning of the Devil ritual in 2006 when busloads of travelers arrived together, causing people to trip and instigating a deadly stampede across the bridge.
The death toll for the most recent stampede keeps climbing and additional injured and missing pilgrims are added to the list each minute. Currently estimated death totals will put it at the top of the list of deadliest events in the history of the Hajj. The government is now claiming that the death toll is less than 1,000, however local Saudi news outlets have estimated the number at over 1,400 and the Saudi Vice Minister of Health has reportedly been quoted as saying the count is over 4,000 (Presstv.ir).
Fires and violence at Mecca
In previous years, pilgrims were housed in villages of tents surrounding Mecca. These tents cities were the site of hundreds of deaths in the late 20th century. Fires spread rapidly amongst the tents and in 1997 over 340 people were killed and an additional 1,500 seriously injured. This incident prompted the Saudi government to mandate the production of the tents with fireproof material.
Although the Saudi government has been responsible for many of the improvements in pilgrim safety, they have also been directly responsible for death during the Hajj. In 1987 an incident involving Iranian demonstrators and the Saudi provided security forces resulted in the deaths of over 400 attendants and injured countless more. Two years later the Saudi government beheaded 16 men responsible for multiple bombing during the 1989 Hajj.
Disease from sanitation issues
Prior to the implementation of current medical programs, illness was a major concern during the period surrounding the Hajj. Many of the pilgrims visiting Mecca come from countries with poor or non-existent health care systems and the spread of preventable infectious disease is a major concern. Not only could the infections spread rapidly amongst the attendants, but the potential of pilgrims carrying disease back to their homes is an even greater risk.
An outbreak of meningitis spread internationally following the completion of the 1987 Hajj prompting current requirements including proof of immunization prior to obtaining a visa to travel to Mecca. The Saudi government has been diligent about monitoring this requirement and in addition to adding several types of immunizations required each year (Who.int).
Some officials believe that the Saudi officials should be working harder to mitigate the risk of these massive casualties, however the Saudi government contends that crowds of this size will result in unforeseeable tragedy despite planning and preparation. The restriction of pilgrim participation is possibly the largest step being taken to control the size of the crowds, although it has met with harsh criticism from Muslims across the globe.
Visa requirements not only include vaccinations, but also potentially restrict the repeat attendance of pilgrims to the Hajj. The Royal Embassy has required travelers from the United States to register with a licensed travel agent and reserves the right to deny Hajj visas to any individual who has participated in the last five years.
It is hard for pilgrims and officials to agree what the best steps are to prevent such large casualties in the future. The Muslim faith and Saudi officials have made numerous changes and proven to be flexible and accommodating. The true potential is that they may in fact be correct when they say that no matter what steps are taken, tragedies are inevitable when attempting to manage millions of people converging on a single city each year.
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Presstv.ir,. ‘Presstv-‘Hajj Tragedy Deaths Cross 4,000”. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Saudi Embassy,. ‘Hajj Requirements: (Updated Annually)’. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Shaheen, Kareem. ‘Hajj Stampede Death Toll Raised To 1,453’. The Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
The News International, Pakistan,. ‘Number Of Foreign Hajis Grows By 2,824 Percent In 92 Years’. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Vancouver Sun,. ‘Spain Reports Its First MERS Case; Woman Travelled To Saudi Arabia For Hajj’. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.
Who.int,. ‘WHO | 22 October 2010, Vol. 85, 43 (Pp 425–436)’. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.