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Volume 25, Number 6November/December 1974

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The Pilgrims Progress

"In 1974 more than half the Indonesian pilgrims, 98 percent of the Iranians and all of the 5,000 pilgrims from Bangladesh came by air instead of by sea."

Written and photographed by S. M. Amin

The annual Pilgrimage to Mecca is unquestionably one of the most remarkable spiritual happenings of the age. But it is a logistical marvel as well. Each year, starting about 10 days before the Hajj, tens of thousands of pilgrims from some 70 nations begin pouring into Jiddah by road, sea and air. Many are poor and old; some are ill; a few are illiterate and many thousands speak no language but their own, Together with the pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia they total nearly one and a quarter million human beings who must be provided with shelter, food, water, sanitary facilities, medical care and—en masse and on time—transportation during the 120-mile, six-day trip to and from Jiddah and the holy places.

For the Saudi officials charged with handling the pilgrims it is a staggering logistical problem. During the Hajj season the population of Jiddah and Mecca suddenly triples and then as suddenly ebbs away. Even more striking is the contrast at Mina, in a valley near 'Arafat. For 360 days a year Mina is a ghost town with a population of, at most, 50 caretakers which, during the five days of the Hajj—and during those five days only—swells to well over a million people.

Another problem is the nature of the hajjis themselves. Although every sort of person, from heads of state to the near destitute, can be found among the pilgrims, the majority consists of those who work with their hands: farmers, shepherds, fishermen, weavers, carpenters, and, a recent addition, growing numbers of industrial workers.

For them—simple, unsophisticated and perhaps knowing only a little-known dialect of a little-known language—the Hajj is a bewildering experience. It is probably the only lengthy journey they will have made in their lives, possibly the first time they will have left their country—or even their district—and certainly the only time they will have traveled by air plane or ship. As a result many are confused, and even terrified, when they first face the surging masses of pilgrims in or en route to Mecca.

The problem, moreover, is steadily growing more difficult because the number of pilgrims is increasing each year. In the past 20 years the number of pilgrims has increased six fold and in just the last five has doubled. In January 1974, according to the Ministry of the Hajj, there were precisely 1,222,545 pilgrims, of whom 607,755, or roughly half, were foreigners—most from other Arab countries and Asia, but including 75,000 from Africa, just under 5,000 from Europe and exactly 99 from North, Central and South America.

In past centuries this mass migration would simply not have been possible; for most Muslims the Pilgrimage was too long, too expensive and too dangerous.

Back then, and until this century, most pilgrims, traveling by either sea or land, converged on Mecca in three slow-moving waves. One—from the coast of East Africa and the horn of Africa, from the great inverted triangle of the Indian subcontinent and from the sprinkled archipelagos of the East Indies—came on an armada of ships ploughing north and northwest across the blue expanse of the Indian Ocean and on overloaded dhows sailing over the green waters of the Arabian Sea. Another—moving still more slowly—came on foot and by horse and camel in three great caravans, the first plodding southwards from Damascus with Hajjis from Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey, the second from Cairo, bringing, along with the devout from Egypt and the whole North African littoral, a new covering for the Ka'bah, and a third caravan crossing the Peninsula from Baghdad (see p. 8 ).

The third wave, rippling eastward with painful slowness, came trudging across the vast width of Central Africa, from what are now Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Sierra Leone through Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and the Sudan to ports on the Red Sea.

Each wave had its particular character, but there were no hardships to compare with the sufferings of the third wave. These pilgrims traversed every sort of landscape—sandy deserts, rocky deserts, tropical jungle, fetid swamp and grassy steppe land—and could take years to arrive. One man, single when he left, arrived in Mecca with a wife and seven children. Another started out as a child and arrived as a man in his seventies. And nearly all of the poorer pilgrims had to do it in stages; setting out, stopping to work and save money, moving on, stopping again. Some were enslaved and many died—often willingly, since death on the Hajj guarantees entry into Paradise—but the current flowed on.

In addition to natural hazards, pilgrims also faced a constant threat from bandits and corrupt officials in and along the route to the holy places. In the 12th century, for example, a famous traveler named Ibn Jubayr found to his horror that the nomad tribesmen of the Hijaz treated Muslim pilgrims worse than they treated Jews and Christians, "seizing most of the provisions they have collected, robbing them and finding cause to divest them of all they have." Sporadic efforts at reform gave occasional relief—the great Saladin, for example, paid all pilgrim taxes himself to the Amir of the Hijaz—but theft, extortion and corruption persisted right into the 1920's. Just prior to the conquest of the Hijaz by the House of Sa'ud, banditry, profiteering and excessive taxation were common and medical and sanitary conditions appalling.

With the victory of King 'Abd al-'Aziz, Ibn Sa'ud, there was a change. Dismayed at what the pilgrims had to endure, the King swiftly crushed the brigands, canceled the rights of certain tribes to levy taxes on the pilgrims and clamped down on prices for transport, whether by camel or automobile. The King also contracted for improvements in water supplies and sanitary facilities and began to hire doctors and build hospitals. As a final move he appointed his second son, the present King Faisal, to rule as the governor of the Hijaz. Faisal, in full sympathy with his father's wishes, immediately announced that he planned to make Mecca "a place fit for the Hajj," a goal to which he has adhered ever since.

In the 1950's all the traditional patterns of travel changed radically. Although the construction of the Hijaz Railway and the introduction of steamships and motorized transport had supplanted the camel caravan earlier (see p. 8 ), the big change came when someone had the clever idea of converting World War II bombers into passenger planes and chartering them to groups of pilgrims. The idea caught on and by the 1970's major Arab airlines were competing for contracts to fly pilgrims to and from Mecca—with individual contracts worth up to $4 million a year. Most pilgrims now fly on Saudia, Saudi Arabia's national airline, but in the early days it was Middle East Airlines of Lebanon that pioneered Hajj service. By the early 1960's MEA was chartering special flights to and from Jiddah for national airlines in India, Ceylon, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, Somaliland, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. To fulfill big contracts MEA has assigned up to five Boeing 707's to a particular country for six to eight weeks, during which the planes have made 300 flights and carried close to 1,900 pilgrims a day. From Nigeria alone, MEA records show, totals went from 22,500 pilgrims in 1969 to 40,000 in 1973.

The effect of air travel on the sea routes has been phenomenal. In 1974 more than half the Indonesian pilgrims, 98 percent of the Iranians and all of the 5,000 pilgrims from Bangladesh came by air instead of by sea.

Air travel wrought similar changes in road totals, particularly after the 1967 war, when Israel's occupation of the Sinai Desert blocked the traditional land routes and forced all but a tiny handful of Hajjis from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to take to the air. There is still a fairly steady flow down the route from Damascus—because most pilgrims from Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine prefer to go by road—but from Turkey, and even Damascus, the majority now go by air.

As for the third wave—the trans-African wave—air travel has nearly ended the great transcontinental trek. Although several thousands may still come on foot, records show that in 1974 exactly 42 pilgrims from Africa came by road and that every single one of the pilgrims from Uganda, Togoland, Gambia, Dahomey, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea and the Central African Republic flew, as did a large majority from Mauritania, Mali and Nigeria.

The impact on Saudi Arabia, of course, has been staggering. Where officials once talked of the "flow" of pilgrims, they now began to think in terms of a flash flood, cresting sometime during the 10 days immediately preceding the start of the Hajj (see p. 2). In 1974, for example, airborne Hajjis poured into Jiddah at the rate of 120 flights a day for about three weeks—and poured out with even greater rapidity.

To cope with the growing problem of logistics, the Ministry of the Hajj has increasingly turned to a unique Hajj institution—the mutawwif or Hajj guide—to provide the personal attention that so many pilgrims require. Actually, "guide" is an utterly inadequate description. Although the mutawwif is certainly a guide, his responsibility is much greater than in the ordinary tourist-guide arrangement. The mutawwif arranges transport, accommodations, food and water—a particularly vital service when the Hajj falls during the hot months. He also sees that the pilgrims get to where they are supposed to go and gives guidance to the pilgrims with regard to the rituals. So important is his role that every single pilgrim must register with one or another of these guides as soon as he or she arrives in Saudi Arabia, and must have the guide's approval to leave.

The mutawwifs have been in business for generations and are organized into nearly 80 firms of differing sizes and standards. Service, of course, varies greatly according to rates—which range from many thousands to under $100—but no one is ever denied a guide. And in at least one country—Malaysia—mutawwifs may be engaged on the installment plan.

Given the size of the crowds, even the most efficient mutawwif would be of little value without the facilities which the Saudi Government has been studying and improving since the House of Sa'ud reestablished its rule in the Hijaz. At Jiddah, for instance, the government has built large transit centers from which the pilgrims can travel directly and speedily to Mecca—and on to Mina, 'Arafat and Medina—over a network of new roads. In 1974 more than 66,000 vehicles went out from Mecca to 'Arafat at the same time and, though crammed into a 15-mile stretch, created no traffic jams, thanks to a complex of eight roads linking Mecca and 'Arafat, plus a new pedestrian road. Traffic control authorities also assigned thousands of policemen, national guardsmen and Boy Scouts, and employed closed-circuit TV, helicopters and walkie-talkies. At 'Arafat and Mina the immense "tent cities" which are put up and taken down each year are now laid out on a grid system, with welfare workers, national guardsmen and Boy Scouts assigned to each block to take charge of pilgrims who get lost or sick. Using their walkie-talkies, the guardsmen whistle up a helicopter which then hovers overhead to indicate the spot to the rescuing ambulance or police van.

Improvements include health facilities too. Where the Hajj in the past was notoriously vulnerable to infectious diseases, the World Health Organization today gives it a clean bill of health and recently lifted the international sanitary controls that had been enforced for years. As one pilgrim said, "It is now quite difficult to die on the Hajj." To attain such goals, the Saudi Arabian Government had to provide an abundant supply of good water at Mina and 'Arafat, guarantee garbage removal, install new sanitary facilities, provide hospitals and, by ground and air spraying, disinfect the whole area. As a precaution the government also built in Jiddah a huge quarantine center, perhaps the world's biggest. In all the government now spends about $50 million per Pilgrimage, not counting the cost of 23 national medical missions sent, staffed and paid for by other countries, many of whose citizens will, at least once in their lives, make this holiest of journeys.

This article appeared on pages 40-44 of the November/December 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1974 images.