Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered a safety review for the Hajj pilgrimage after at least 717 people died in a stampede near the holy city of Mecca. Over 863 people were injured in the incident at Mina, which occurred as two million pilgrims were taking part in the Hajj’s last major rite. It is the deadliest incident to occur during the pilgrimage in 25 years.
The king said there was a need “to improve the level of organization and management of movement” of pilgrims. It is the second disaster to strike Mecca in two weeks, after a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque, killing 109 people.
As part of the Hajj, pilgrims travel to Mina, a large valley about 5km (3 miles) from Mecca, to throw seven stones at pillars called Jamarat, which represent the devil. The pillars stand where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Abraham.
The accident occurred at 09:00 local time as pilgrims were walking towards the five-storey structure which surrounds the pillars, known as the Jamarat Bridge. Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, said the crush occurred when two large groups of pilgrims converged from different directions on to one street.
Photographs showed the bodies of dozens of pilgrims on the ground, some piled high. They were all dressed in the simple white garments worn during the Hajj.
“I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him,” Abdullah Lotfy, from Egypt, told reporters. “People were climbing over one another just to breathe.”
The Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars on improving transport and other infrastructure to try to prevent such incidents.
The number of people attending Hajj rose from 57,000 in 1921 to a high of 3.2m three years ago, according to the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information. That figure dropped to just over two million last year.
The Hajj and its history of tragedy
Undertaking a Hajj to Mecca at least once in your lifetime is a duty for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so, and a deeply significant spiritual experience.
Pilgrims flock to the ancient city for a five-day period during the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. While there, they wear wear white garments, and perform a series of rites to reenact the Prophet Muhammad’s own journey and actions.
• It is the largest annual pilgrimage on Earth and numbers continue to grow. While once a difficult and perilous journey in and of itself, the ease of modern travel has made it increasingly possible for Muslims from all parts of the world to visit Mecca, from around 100,000 people in the late 1920s, to crowds of between 2 and 3 million people today.
The Hajj has been marred by numerous terrible tragedies over the years, many caused by surging crowds in confined spaces or fires, claiming the lives of thousands of pilgrims in the last three decades. These include:
• 1990 – More than 1400 people were crushed or suffocated to death in a pedestrian tunnel, in the worst incident in recent memory. The numbers of overall victims were so high; they had to be buried in a mass grave.
• 1994 – More than 250 people were killed in a crush as a crowd surged forward on narrow pedestrian paths while trying to perform a symbolic ritual.
• 1997- More than 200 people died when a fire broke in a sea of tents where pilgrims were staying.
• 1998 – A further 118 people died in a similar surge during the stoning ritual.
• 2004 – Around 250 people were crushed and killed, again during the stoning ritual.
• 2006 – At least 346 people died in a chaotic surge, which some witnesses blamed on police trying to block some entrances and authorities blamed on “unruly pilgrims”.
The enormous and ever-growing numbers of people travelling to Mecca each year presents a logistical nightmare for authorities. The Hajj must be performed at a fixed time, and the rites must be carried out in the same sequence, and often in extremely hot weather, making diffusing the crowds and ensuring safety difficult.