Hundreds of people have died and thousands have been treated for heatstroke while performing the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca amid extreme

Muslim pilgrims pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia (AFP via Getty Images)
Muslim pilgrims pray around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia (AFP via Getty Images)

temperatures of up to 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Some 165 Indonesians are among the dead, CNN Indonesia reported, citing the country’s Consulate General’s Hajj Management Office in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, at least 41 Jordanians, 35 Tunisians and 11 Iranians have died, according to authorities in each country.

A further 22 Jordanians are missing and 26 Iranians have been hospitalized, the Iranian Red Crescent said Wednesday, according to Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency.

The death toll is likely to rise, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have yet to release official figures. Additionally, the governments are only aware of pilgrims who have registered and traveled to Mecca as part of their country’s quota – more deaths are feared among unregistered pilgrims.

The Saudi government said on Monday that more than 2,700 people had been treated for heatstroke. Meanwhile, hundreds of people have taken to social media to post about their loved ones being unaccounted for.

 

More than 1.8 million people are taking part in this year’s Hajj, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

While deaths among pilgrims are not uncommon (there were more than 200 last year), this year’s gathering is being held amid particularly high temperatures.

Hajj season changes every year according to the Islamic calendar and this year it fell in June, one of the hottest months in the kingdom.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia advised pilgrims against performing the “stoning of the devil” ritual between certain hours after temperatures reached an extreme 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Hajj officials have asked pilgrims to carry umbrellas and stay hydrated amid the harsh conditions while the Saudi army has deployed more than 1,600 personnel with medical units specifically for heatstroke and 30 rapid response teams. Another 5,000 health and first aid volunteers are taking part.

Performing Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which requires every Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the journey to the holy city of Mecca at least once in his or her life.

The pilgrimage includes numerous detailed rituals including wearing a special garment that symbolizes human equality and unity before God, a circular, counter-clockwise procession around the cube-shaped Kaaba building, and the symbolic stoning of evil.

A source of prestige and revenue

The Hajj is a source of prestige for Saudi Arabia’s king, who holds the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites. But the pilgrimage is also a significant source of revenue for the Saudi economy.

Soon after King Salman bin Abdulaziz took power in 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a $21 billion project to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca to accommodate 300,000 additional worshippers. A year later, then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman identified the pilgrimage as a key component of a plan to diversify the Saudi economy by 2030.

Experts say that with oil sales generating close to a billion dollars a day for the kingdom, the pilgrimage’s economic benefit is marginal by comparison. But its great, untapped potential could bring significant riches to the kingdom in the long term.

Pilgrimage revenues were forecast to average about $30 billion a year and create 100,000 jobs for Saudis when the kingdom attracted around 21 million worshippers annually during the 10-day Hajj as well as the yearlong Umrah pilgrimage, according to official data cited by Reuters. The government is targeting 30 million pilgrims by 2030.

This story has been updated with additional information. Edward Szekeres and Handi Alkhshali contributed reporting.

What do you do during Hajj?

During Hajj, Muslims perform a series of rituals that commemorate the actions of the Prophet Abraham and his family.

The pilgrimage typically consists of the following steps:

  1.  
  2. Ihram: Pilgrims enter ritual consecration known as ihram, which involves wearing special garments (not just two pieces of white cloth).

  3. Tawaf: Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times in a counter-clockwise direction, which is the correct direction (not anticlockwise).

  4. Drinking water from the ZamZam well: While drinking ZamZam water is recommended and available throughout the pilgrimage, it’s not a mandatory ritual during Hajj itself.

  5. Sa’y: Pilgrims walk seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, symbolising Hagar’s search for water for her son Ishmael.

  6. Wuquf at Arafat: Pilgrims stand in prayer and devotion on the plain of Arafat, not asking specifically for forgiveness at Mount Arafat.

  7. Collecting pebbles from Muzdalifah: Pilgrims spend the night at Muzdalifah after Arafat and then collect pebbles for the stoning ritual.

  8. Throwing pebbles at the Jamarat: During the stoning ritual, pilgrims throw pebbles at three pillars that represent Satan.

  9. Sacrifice for Eid al-Adha: This ritual involves sacrificing animals such as sheep, goats, or cows, commemorating Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

  10. Visit to Madinah: Some pilgrims visit Madinah to pray at the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque and visit his burial site, though it’s not a mandatory part of Hajj.

  11. Return to Makkah for Tawaf and Sa’y: After completing the rituals at Mina and the stoning of Jamarat, pilgrims return to Mecca to perform another Tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaaba and Sa’y (walking between Safa and Marwah) as part of the final rituals.

Muslim worshippers gather for prayer at Namirah Mosque in Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia, before the end of Hajj (AFP/Getty Images)
 
Muslim worshippers gather for prayer at Namirah Mosque in Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia, before the end of Hajj (AFP/Getty Images)

Why are there so many deaths at Hajj?

Several factors contribute to deaths during Hajj, despite extensive efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of pilgrims:

  1. Large crowds: Hajj attracts millions of international pilgrims, causing densely packed crowds at key locations such as the Kaaba, Mina, and Arafat. Managing large numbers of people can be challenging, and overcrowding increases the risk of accidents and stampedes.

  2. Heat and physical exertion: Temperatures can be extremely high in Saudi Arabia, especially during the pilgrimage season (as in 2024). The physical demands of performing rituals in such conditions can lead to heat exhaustion and other health complications, particularly for elderly pilgrims or those with pre-existing medical conditions.

  3. Health issues: Some pilgrims may not be in optimal health before Hajj. The physical exertion, heat, and stress of the pilgrimage can exacerbate existing health problems or lead to new ones. Medical facilities and emergency services are strained due to the sheer volume of pilgrims requiring assistance.

  4. Stampedes and accidents: Despite efforts by authorities to organise and manage the flow of pilgrims, stampedes and accidents can still occur. Sudden surges in crowd movement or logistical issues often trigger these. The stoning ritual at Jamarat (throwing pebbles at pillars representing Satan) has historically been a site of tragic stampedes.

  5. Logistical challenges: Ensuring adequate accommodation, transport, sanitation, and medical facilities for millions of pilgrims is a massive logistical challenge. Even with extensive planning and resources, unforeseen events or logistical failures can contribute to incidents.

Efforts to mitigate these risks include improved crowd management; expanded infrastructure; better emergency response capabilities; and educational campaigns to inform pilgrims about safety measures.

Despite these efforts, the sheer scale and complexity of Hajj continue to present challenges that require ongoing attention and improvement to ensure the safety and well-being of all pilgrims.

Paramedics carry a Muslim pilgrim for a medical check after he fell due to heatstroke at Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 16, 2024 (AP)
Paramedics carry a Muslim pilgrim for a medical check after he fell due to heatstroke at Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 16, 2024 (AP)

How many people died during Hajj last year?

In 2023, temperatures reached 48°C, leading to at least 8,400 pilgrims suffering from heat-related illnesses.

There were thought to be more than 200 deaths last year, most of them involving Indonesian pilgrims.

However, the actual number is likely to be higher due to the number of unreported cases.

What are the restrictions on Hajj?

The restrictions on Hajj can vary from year to year and are typically influenced by factors such as public health concerns, political situations, and logistical considerations.

Here are some common types of restrictions that may be implemented:

  1. Quota system: Each country often has a quota on the number of pilgrims it can send to Hajj, based on its Muslim population. This manages the overall number of pilgrims and ensures safety and accommodation.

  2. Health requirements: Pilgrims may be required to provide proof of vaccination against certain diseases and undergo health screenings before being allowed to participate in Hajj. This is particularly important during outbreaks of diseases such as Covid-19.

  3. Age and health restrictions: Due to the physical rigours of Hajj, certain age groups or individuals with serious health conditions may be advised or restricted from participating.

  4. Security measures: There are strict security measures throughout Hajj to ensure the safety of pilgrims. This includes checkpoints, crowd control measures, and surveillance.

  5. Logistical restrictions: Restrictions may be placed on the type and amount of luggage pilgrims can bring — and regulations regarding accommodation and transport arrangements.

  6. Political restrictions: In some cases, political tensions or conflicts may result in restrictions on pilgrims from certain countries or regions.

  7. Gender and dress code: Pilgrims must adhere to specific guidelines regarding dress code (wearing of ihram for men and appropriate modest clothing for women). Ihram is a state of ritual purity and special attire worn by Muslim pilgrims during Hajj, consisting of simple white garments symbolising equality and spiritual readiness.

  8.     READ MORE:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *