Saturday, January 14, 2006

il Hajj

BBC-afp-mecca at night
photo courtesy AFP and BBC

You may have heard of the 345 people who died at the Hajj in Mecca on Thursday, at the stoning of the devil ceremony. Unfortunately mass-scale tragedies are nothing new for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is expected, if possible, at least once in every Muslim's lifetime. (Although my mother's family is Muslim, I am not.)

Just since 1990:

* 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 in a stampede during the stoning of the devil ritual.
* On February 11, 2003, the stoning 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.


* In December 1975 an exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony. 200 pilgrims were killed.
* On April 15, 1997 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire.

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.

see also this BBC report. And BBC's "What is the Hajj?"

I imagine some westerners look at this grim record and conclude that Muslims just don't value life the way other people do, but I don't believe that is the case. Naturally I haven't been on a Hajj, so I haven't seen it first hand, but my impression is that a lot of the fault lies with the Saudi government for not updating the facility, perhaps because they fear criticisms from fundamentalist hard-liners. The dome of the rock has been pretty much the same for 14 centuries, and the facility hosts as many as four million pilgrims in just a few days, since the Hajj only occurs once a year, and is not an ongoing thing which would allow pilgrims to show up whenever they had time. The stoning of the devil ceremony, for example, involves pilgrims throwing pebbles at three pillars, and all four million pilgrims have to cross the same bridge to get to the pillars. I don't doubt the Saudis would be criticized in some quarters if they modified the facility, which obviously wasn't designed to host so many visitors, but I hope they do.