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Volume 32, Number 4July/August 1981

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A Terminal in a Tent

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by S. M. Amin

Tents have been used continuously in Arabia for centuries: as homes for hardy desert herdsmen; as shelters for early oilmen, the geologists who explored Saudi Arabia's Eastern province for oil; and - spread by the thousands across the plains of  'Arafat and Mina - as lodgings for Muslim pilgrims to Makkah. But the tent put up by Saudi Arabia in Jiddah last year must be the biggest and most imaginative in history. Hung from pylons and covering more than 40 hectares (100 acres), this tent is an airline terminal - a terminal designed specifically and exclusively as a transit area for Muslims making the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah.

In its basic design, the terminal-tent is similar to that of the Bedouin's traditional black tent - strips of cloth slung between poles driven into the ground - but the similarity ends there. For one thing, the terminal-tent–actually 210 separate tents with their edges joined - is one of the largest structures built in modern times; the tents roof covers an area bigger than the Pentagon - once the world's largest office building. For another, the terminal-tent, unlike, say, circus tents, is not attached directly to the ground, but is suspended in mid-air - six stories from the ground.

To Muslims, the pilgrimage to Makkah one of the five pillars, or basic requirements, of Islam, is probably the most sacred act of their lives. If they possibly can, all Muslims must make the Hajj at least once, no matter where they live nor how far they have to come.

In the past, this was often a heroic undertaking in which pilgrims faced danger and death and sometimes spent years to complete.

Back in the early days, pilgrims, as one writer described it, (see Aramco World November- December 1974):

... converged on Makkah 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 as 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'ba, and a third caravan crossing the Peninsula from Baghdad.

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.

Over the years, of course, advances in transportation effected changes in the pilgrimage. The introduction of steamships, for example, and the construction of the Hijaz Railway, from Damascus to Medina, reduced or ended the great camel caravans by which thousands of Muslims once traveled to Makkah. But the most radical change came in the WSO's when a Lebanese airline converted some World War II planes and chartered them to groups of pilgrims. By the early 1960's, as a result, the airline was chartering special flights to and from Jiddah for national airlines in India, Ceylon, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, Somalia, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, assigning, in some cases, up to five Boeing 707's to a country to shuttle between that country and Jiddah for six to eight weeks - carrying close to 1,900 pilgrims a day.

In making it possible for Muslims to get to Makkah swiftly and safely, the introduction of aircraft was tremendously important to the world of Islam. Millions who once could never have dreamt of going on Hajj, began to save for the airfare and other tens of thousands set off immediately. By 1974, airborne pilgrims were pouring into Jiddah at the rate of 120 flights a day and in 20 years, statistics show, the pilgrimage total went up six times, and in 1980 was 1,940,634.

For Saudi Arabia, of course, the logistical impact of this steadily multiplying influx of pilgrims was immense but by the late 1970's authorities had met the challenge - by building large transient centers, from which the pilgrims could travel directly and speedily to Makkah from Jiddah; by constructing a network of roads linking Makkah with 'Arafat, Mina and Medina; and by organizing an army of workers at 'Arafat and Mina to put up and take down the immense tent cities, which, every year, house more than a million people. One problem, however, stubbornly resisted solution: how to process, house, feed, transport and - at times - provide medical care for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pouring into the airport in a very short period?

In one sense, this problem is insoluble. Under Islamic law, pilgrims must make the Hajj between the eighth and 13th days of the 12th month of the Muslim lunar year - Dhu al-Hijjah—which means that all the pilgrims arrive over a period of just a few weeks. As some 532,000 pilgrims came by air in 1979 and 572,300 pilgrims in 1980, that means that every year Jiddah Airport had to gear up for a one-month increase of close to some 50,000 passengers a day. Too small for that growing metropolis, even in normal times, Jiddah's airport simply didn't have the facilities - nor the extra immigration and customs personnel needed to adequately examine the passports and luggage of the tens of thousands of pilgrims pouring off the planes, particularly during the hectic 10 days before the start of the Hajj. The airport also increased the space to accommodate them while they waited for transportation to Makkah, some 64 kilometers (40 miles) away.

The problem was exacerbated, moreover, by the fact that many pilgrims are old and that many - fully half - are from distant countries, which means they don't speak Arabic. In addition, many have never traveled before. As a result tens of thousands of pilgrims pouring off the jets into Jiddah's airport are disoriented and bewildered.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the architects it engaged did solve the problem: first by providing a wholly separate Hajj terminal - a terminal exclusively for the annual influx of well over 500,000 pilgrims and as many as 50,000 on a single day - secondly by introducing the concept of a terminal in a tent.

The exclusive Hajj terminal, in turn, was an offshoot of Saudi Arabia's vast airport construction program. Managed by the Kingdom's International Airports Projects, this program included three massive airports: one in the Eastern province, one in Riyadh and one in Jiddah a 103-square-kilometer airport (40.5
square miles) twice the size of Manhattan.

A badly needed facility, the new Jiddah airport will serve 42 airlines and is expected to be handling 8.6 million passengers annually by 1985 and 10 million in the year 2000. It will include two commercial airline terminals — one just for Saudia, the national airline - a Royal Pavilion for use by the King, the Royal Family and official guests, three mosques, an air freight center - with a capacity to handle 150,000 metric tons of cargo annually - and, the most striking feature of the airport, the Hajj Terminal complex.

The size of the Jiddah airport was a factor in the decision to build a separate Hajj terminal; because the new airport, which was dedicated April 12, is one of the largest in the world, the addition of an extra terminal posed no problems of space; there are, in fact, three separate terminals.

What did pose problems, however, was the need to build a structure in which the incoming pilgrims could be processed like ordinary international travelers, yet also live there for a day or two after their arrival, while awaiting transport to Makkah, or locating their mutawwifs - the specialized guides who arrange housing and transport for pilgrims, and provide advice on Hajj ritual.

It posed problems because a building big enough to accommodate up to 50,000 pilgrims who might be waiting in the terminal at any one time would have to be enormous. It would be extremely expensive, furthermore, to maintain and air-condition and would only be in use for a few weeks a year.

In trying to solve those problems, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill - a firm of architects headquartered in New York and Chicago soon concluded that a single building enclosing both processing and waiting zones would be too impractical to build, air-condition and maintain. Instead, they decided they would provide two kinds of space: a series of enclosed, air-conditioned buildings for disembarkation - immigration and customs - and a much larger, yet sheltered waiting area.

Putting up the enclosed buildings was no problem, of course. But to design an enormous open waiting area which would allow mass movement, provide shelter from the sun, and include water, toilets, medical facilities and space to sleep, wash and cook was something else. Could they use trellises, perhaps? Or concrete "mushrooms"? Roofs of light material? All those possibilities and others were considered, but were dropped when calculations quickly disclosed that the quantities of stone or metal needed would be too huge and too costly.

Then, however, they began to discuss a new - and unique - fiberglass fabric developed by Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. and being manufactured at a plant in Rhode Island. Made of Beta yarn, this fabric was reputed to be six times finer than silk, but, pound-for-pound, stronger than steel. Coated with Teflon to reflect the sun's rays, and treated with chemicals, paints and plastics as protection against the harsh elements of the Red Sea air, could this fabric provide the light, strong and comparatively inexpensive material that the Hajj Terminal needed? The architects thought it could.

In choosing fabric, of course, the architects were committing themselves to some form of tent, a structure that, for a Hajj terminal, was particularly suitable. Before the advent of air travel tents were used as overnight shelters by pilgrims making the long overland trek to Makkah, and to this day vast tent cities spring up at 'Arafat and Mina as the Hajj reaches its height.

With regard to architecture, this ancient form of shelter may be one of those ideas whose time has come - or come back. Spurred by the development of new fabrics, architects around the world had began to use tents as sports stadiums, shopping malls and exhibition halls - such as the U.S. Pavilion at Expo '70 in Japan. Why not then, put a terminal in a tent?

No one had tried anything as ambitious as an airline terminal but once Skidmore decided to try it - and won Saudi Arabia's backing for the experiment - architects began to predict that the Hajj terminal could do for fabric what London's famous Crystal Palace did for steel and glass in 1885: catch the attention of the world's builders and eventually bring about a new architectural style.

More to the point, fabric in architecture is efficient, at least in some climates. At Jiddah, the great fiberglass roof- looking rather like a roiled surface of a vast sea - provides a giant canopy through which soft, natural light is filtered onto the 105-acre area below - eliminating the need for electric lights in the daytime. Because the sides are open, breezes off the Red Sea cool the pilgrims beneath the canopy and are then sucked up through conical openings 10 stories above creating a constant flow of air without the cost of air-conditioning.

Below the canopy, in a shaded, pleasant and open area, the pilgrims can, in effect, camp out, without exposure to the sun and with all the comfort and facilities of a modern, enclosed, terminal building: telephones and telexes, a post office, suqs (shopping areas), restaurants, bus station and taxi stands, a car rental agency, an information desk, a first aid station and a dispensary, and, special to this terminal, kitchens, since many pilgrims prefer to cook their own meals.

A key point in providing a separate terminal, of course, was to isolate the daily Hajj passengers from normal air traffic; in addition to waiting facilities, therefore, the architects had to provide normal customs and immigration facilities. They achieved this by designing the Hajj terminal in the shape of a great rectangle and dividing it into identical halves with a mall in the center and two aircraft aprons at opposite ends - each capable of accommodating 10 Boeing 747's.

Each half of the complex contains five identical modules, and each of them in turn comprises an enclosed passenger-processing building and a waiting area. Pilgrims disembark through enclosed bridges linking their aircraft with one of the 10 modules, complete their passport and customs formalities in the enclosed area and proceed, in a one-way flow, to the adjoining waiting zone where they may rest, shop, cook, eat, wash and, if necessary, sleep — while waiting to start the last leg of their journey to Makkah: a bus trip leaving from the central mall.

Construction of the tent, obviously, was somewhat different from construction in stone, steel or glass. The differences, in fact, start with the manufacture of the materials: 510,967 square meters (5.5 million square feet) of teflon-covered fiberglass fabric, from Rhode Island; the 440 steel support pylons - made from 30,000 tons of rolled steel - from the shipyard city of Tsu, Japan, and transported to Jiddah by ocean-going barge; and some 246 miles of steel cable from the Beaujolais district of France.

Each of these components had to be virtually perfect at the manufacturing stage since the builders in Jiddah could not go back to the plants for replacements in case of trouble. "There was no time for trial and error in the field," says one of the contractors involved. "All components had to fit, all tools had to function correctly, and all methods had to work first time."

To make sure they did, a $2.5-million prototype testing program was carried out at Owens-Corning Technical Center in Granville, Ohio. Additionally, a training program was established for the work force, and in May, 1979, in an operation similar to raising a circus tent, construction of the first units began.

The first step was to position the 80-ton steel support pylons on concrete pads and secure them with giant bolts; this entailed use of a 280-ton crane - the largest of its kind in the world. Next, cables were attached to the top of the pylons and a 16-foot, two-section metal ring was suspended 33 meters from the ground (110 feet) between each set of four.

In the third stage, the bottom half of the metal ring was lowered by pulley to the ground, the top of the tent units - each measuring 2,415 square meters (26,000 square feet) - was attached to it and the ring then raised into the air, the fabric draped from it.

Next, workers pulled the bottom of the fabric outwards and secured the edges to cables extending between four pylons, to form a square frame for the unit's bottom. The workers then laced into sleeves 32 radial cables, stretching from the top center ring to the lower outside edges - which shaped and strengthened the unit like spines of an umbrella - and, when 21 units were completed, hoisted all the 21 units to their full height, and bolted the upper and lower sections of the central support ring together.

Since then, this process has been repeated over and over again - and will continue to be repeated until all the 210 units are in place and their edges joined together to form a single continuous covering. Most of the units should be in place by October, when the 1981 Hajj will take place, but completion is not expected until 1982. Even now, however, it's obvious that the tent is precisely what Fortune called it: "a modern marvel of the Muslim world".

This article appeared on pages 9-18 of the July/August 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1981 images.