Incidents during the Hajj
There have been many serious incidents during the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to the city of Mecca) that have caused the loss of hundreds of lives. There are an estimated 1.3 billion Muslims living today, each of whom is expected to visit Mecca during the Hajj at least once; during the month of the Hajj, Mecca must cope with as many as four million pilgrims.
Jet travel makes Mecca and the Hajj more accessible to pilgrims from all over the world. As a consequence, the Hajj has become increasingly crowded. City officials are required to control large crowds and provide food, shelter, and sanitation for millions. Unfortunately, they have not always been able to prevent disasters. The stoning of the devil ritual is the most dangerous part of the pilgrimage because of the huge crowds, particularly as they cross the massive two-layer flyover-style Jamarat Bridge that affords access to the pillars.
Failures in crowd control
Sometimes the surging crowds, trekking from one station of the pilgrimage to the next, cause a stampede. Panic spreads, pilgrims jostle to avoid being trampled, and hundreds of deaths can result. The Stoning of the Devil ceremony is particularly crowded and dangerous.
On July 2, 1990, a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel (Al-Ma'aisim tunnel) leading out from Mecca towards Mina and the Plains of Arafat led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims.
On May 23, 1994, a stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning of the Devil ritual.
On April 9, 1998, at least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death and 180 injured in an incident on Jamarat Bridge.
On March 5, 2001, 35 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede during the stoning of the Devil ritual.
On February 11 2003, the stoning of the Devil ritual claimed 14 pilgrims' lives.
On February 1, 2004, 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
On January 12, 2006, a stampede during the ritual ramy al-jamarat on the last day of the Hajj in Mina killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more.
The incident occurred shortly after 13:00 local time, when a busload of travellers arrived together at the eastern access ramps to the Jamarat Bridge. This caused pilgrims to trip, rapidly resulting in a lethal crush. An estimated two million people were performing the ritual at the time.
This was the second fatal tragedy of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in 2006. Earlier in the month the Al Ghaza Hotel had collapsed (see below).
In December 1975 an exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony and resulted in the deaths of 200 pilgrims.
On April 15, 1997 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire.
Protests and violence
On November 20, 1979 a group of about 200 militants occupied the Grand Mosque, and later were expelled by Pakistani and French forces (who entered the city with special permission), leaving about 250 dead, and 600 wounded.
On July 31, 1987 Iranian pilgrims rioted, causing the deaths of over 400 people.
On July 9, 1989 2 bombs exploded, killing 1 pilgrim and wounding another 16. Saudi authorities executed 16 Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims for the bombings after originally suspecting Iranian terrorists.
Mingling of visitors from many countries, some of which have poor health care systems still plagued by preventable infectious diseases, can lead to the spread of epidemics. If an outbreak were to occur on the road to Mecca, pilgrims could exacerbate the problem when they returned home and passed their infection on to others. This was more of a problem in the past. One such disease, which has prompted response from the Saudi government, is meningitis as it became a primary concern after an international outbreak following the Hajj in 1987. Due to post-Hajj outbreaks globally of certain types of meningitis in previous years, it is now a visa requirement to be immunised with the ACW135Y vaccine before arrival.
Al Ghaza Hotel collapse
A concrete multi-story building located in Mecca close to the Grand Mosque collapsed on January 5 2006. The building, the Al Ghaza Hotel, is said to have housed a restaurant, a convenience store, and a hostel. The hostel was reported to have been housing pilgrims to the 2006 Hajj. It is not clear how many pilgrims were in the hotel at the time of the collapse. As of latest reports, the death toll is 76 and the number of injured is 64.
Critics say that the Saudi government should have done more to prevent such tragedies. The Saudi government insists that any such mass gatherings are inherently dangerous and difficult to handle, and that they have taken a number of steps to prevent problems.
One of the biggest steps, which is also controversial, is a new system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while restricting repeat visits. Pilgrims who have the means and desire to perform the Hajj several times have protested what they see as discrimination, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they see no alternative if further tragedies are to be prevented.
Following the 2004 stampede, Saudi authorities embarked on major construction work in and around the Jamarat Bridge area. Additional accessways, footbridges, and emergency exits were built, and the three cylindrical pillars were replaced with concrete walls to enable more pilgrims simultaneous access to them without the jostling and fighting for position of recent years. The government has also announced a multi-million-dollar project to expand the bridge to five levels; the project is planned for completion in time for the 1427 AH (Dec. 2006 Jan. 2007) Hajj.
When such a large number of people congregate a certain number of casualties are to be expected on statistical grounds.
Before the beginning of the first day of the December 2006 Hajj, 243 pilgrims had died, according to a statement by the Saudi government. The majority of deaths were reportedly related to heart problems and exhaustion in the elderly and people with weak health, caused by the heat and tiring physical work involved in the pilgrimage. After the conclusion of the Hajj, the Nigerian government reported that 33 nationals had died mostly "as a result of hypertension, diabetes and heart attack", not because of any epidemic illnesses. They deny accusations made that some Nigerian pilgrims died in an accident on a road to Mina. Egypt's official news agency has reported that by Saturday, December 30 (10 Thull-Hijjah) 22 Egyptian pilgrims had died. Four elderly Filipino pilgrims in their 50s died during the pilgrimage of illnesses or other 'natural causes', and were buried in Mecca. The Pakistani Hajj Medical Commission has announced that approximately 130 Pakistani pilgrims died during the Hajj season in Saudi Arabia, "mostly aged and victims of pneumonia and heart patients", and that 66 pilgrims were admitted to Saudi hospitals for similar ailments.
In early December 2006, a coach carrying pilgrims from holy sites in Medina to Mecca crashed 55 miles north of the port of Rabegh near Jeddah, killing 3 Britons and wounding 34 others, including two children.
Khomeini's Messengers in Mecca, political rivalries behind the 1987 bloodshed, by Martin Kramer
Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service - 10 January 2004
Lessons from Hajj deaths at BBC News - 6 March 2001
Five Pillars of Islam