Why is the Muslim hajj so dangerous?

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Feb. 12 2003 5:19 PM

Why Is the Muslim Hajj So Dangerous?

Fourteen Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death Tuesday, while performing the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia. Such tragedies seem to occur with depressing frequency—since 1997, at least 570 worshippers have been accidentally killed during the annual trek to Mecca. Why is the hajj so dangerous?

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Simply put, the ancient facilities have not expanded in proportion to the number of pilgrims. The most hazardous part of the hajj is the stoning of the pillars at Mina, which is where Tuesday's catastrophe took place. The ceremony, in which Muslims symbolically rebuke the devil by throwing 21 pebbles at three pillars, has changed little over the past 14 centuries. What has changed is the number of participants—at least 2 million people a year now partake, according to unofficial estimates. That's thought to be a fourfold increase over the number of pilgrims who made the trip in 1970. The pillars, of course, have remained the same size, making access more difficult.

Worshippers approach the pillars via the Jamarat Bridge, which can supposedly accommodate 100,000 pedestrians per hour. Yet the load often far exceeds this figure since, according to the rules of the hajj, the stoning ritual should be completed in a single day before sundown. It doesn't take much to initiate a deadly stampede under such overcrowded conditions. In 1998, for example, a panic ensued after a few pilgrims fell off the bridge; the ensuing melee killed 180. Tuesday's incident reportedly began when a group of worshippers failed to exit the area surrounding the pillars (the Al-Aqaba Jamarah) in a timely fashion, creating a crush when new pilgrims entered.

The stoning ritual is the most obviously dangerous part of the five-day event, but tragedies have occurred elsewhere in recent years, too. In 1997, 340 were killed and over 1,500 injured when a fire swept through a "tent city" pitched near Mina; tents are now required to be fireproof as a result. And in 1990, at least 1,400 were killed during a stampede in the 500-meter tunnel that connects Mecca to Mount Arafat, where Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon. That disaster is often blamed on the panic caused by a faulty ventilation system.

Sensitive to these hazards, the Saudi Arabian government has tried its best to limit the hajj's dangers. The event is overseen by the Ministry of Interior, which has recently instituted such reforms as monitoring crowd patterns from helicopters and equipping the Jamarat Bridge with surveillance cameras. At the heart of the Al-Aqaba Jamarah, the ministry's efforts include setting up medical units and blaring prerecorded messages over the loudspeakers, requesting that pilgrims depart in an orderly fashion.

But even 20,000 security officers are not enough to ensure absolute safety, as evidenced by yesterday's sad events. If there is a silver lining to be found, it might be that Muslim tradition holds that pilgrims killed during the hajj are guaranteed entrée to paradise.

Bonus Explainer: Another longtime hajj hazard has been the spread of communicable diseases. Last year, for example, the British Medical Journal reported that one-fifth of pilgrims returning to the United Kingdom were found to be carrying a rare bacterium that can cause fatal meningitis.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.