8/27/09 - the hajj and 500

In today's encore excerpt - the Hajj, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, is the fifth pillar of Islam, a journey to Mecca that must be carried out at least once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. It lasts for five days each year and is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah. During the past few decades the number of Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj has grown so massive that the logistics have become daunting and the danger of being crushed or killed has increased markedly - in 2006, there were reputedly some 600 casualties among Hajj pilgrims. (Hajji is the honorific title of one who has completed the Hajj.):

"When King Abdulaziz founded Saudi Arabia early in the twentieth century, a busy Hajj season might see fifty thousand pilgrims visiting the kingdom. The jet age, the oil boom, and the growth of middle-class Muslim populations in Asia and elsewhere meant that, by the end of the 1990s, a typical number annually was about 2 million. The pilgrims all arrived at the same time of year and all went to the same places Medina and Mecca more or less simultaneously. They arrived, too, in a heightened state of spiritual awareness if not longing or near-rapture. ...

"Each year, all the pilgrims assembled in tent camps on the plain of Arafat, about nine miles from Mecca city; at a prescribed time known as the Day of Standing, they stood together in an awesome assembly in the desert beseeching God. That huge gathering was followed by a mass symbolic stoning of the Devil, carried out by hurling pebbles at certain columns several miles from Arafat. Each pilgrim was also expected to purchase and sacrifice a sheep or other animal as an offering to God. The logistical and sanitary challenges presented by the occupation of an open desert camp of 2 million people, followed by group rock throwing and animal slaughter can be readily imagined. Hajj after Hajj, a stampede, fire, collapsing bridge, or other mishap would claim hundreds of pilgrim lives. Even in the absence of such calamities the heat of a summer Hajj on Arafat could be too much for many elderly pilgrims. Then too there was traffic: 'The largest traffic jam I have ever seen,' recalled Mark Caudill, an American Pilgrim. ...

"King Fahd ... tried to alleviate this traffic-induced suffering. His approach, however, was typical of transportation development approaches popular in the United States: more roads, more parking lots, more tunnels, and more bridges ... [and the Kingdom] built parking lots at Arafat and elsewhere during the mid-1990s, totaling millions of square feet. Above the Arafat plain, to cool off the faithful during the Day of Standing, they installed an overhead water piping system that spewed out thin jets of water above the pilgrims' heads. They dug new connector roads and flyovers, laid down pedestrian walkways, installed water fountains, and put in 14,200 public toilets. They built a modern slaughterhouse that could accommodate 500,000 goats and sheep, plus another that could handle 10,000 camels and cattle."


Steve Coll


The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century


Penguin Press


Copyright 2008 by Steve Coll


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