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Hajj ritual begins

November 14, 2010 - SAUDI ARABIA

Some 2 million pilgrims from 70 countries begin the 5-day ritual that able-bodied Muslims are expected to complete in their lifetime at Islam's holiest shrine, Mecca. The sighting of the new moon between Nov 14 and 18 will determine the start date. Fatalities mar each Hajj because the ancient facilities were not designed for the present crush of pilgrims. The 1431 Hijrah Hajj sees safety upgrades. One is the new Mashair Railway, which links the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa with Mecca.

Muslims measure the passage of time with Hijrah calendar. Years are counted since the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in approximately Jul 622 AD. Every year sees a massive security deployment for the pilgrimage, mainly to manage the movement of the crowds, prevent frictions and ensure safety. The overcrowding -- unofficial estimates say the increase in pilgrims has been fourfold since 1970 -- has led to fires, the collapses of hotels, bridges and tunnels, to clashes and deadly stampedes. The most hazardous part of the Hajj is the stoning of the pillars at Mina. The ceremony, in which Muslims symbolically rebuke the devil by throwing 21 pebbles at three pillars, has changed little over the past 14 centuries. The increase in pilgrims has made access more difficult and crushing and trampling fatalities are a regular occurrence. The government completed the five-storey hi-tech Jamarat Bridge in time for the 2009 Hajj to improve the flow of the pilgrims during the devil-stoning ritual. In 1990, 1426 pilgrims were killed in a tunnel leading to the holy sites. New footbridges with emergency exits were built on the pilgrimage route. Despite the re-engineered route, at least 345 pilgrims were killed in Jan 2006 and some 300 injured in a stampede. The Eastern Entrance is described as a "pinch point" to the whole system - one million people trying to get through a 150-foot gap. In a previous stampede, the pilgrims were returning via Mina after performing the Tawaf al-Wada, a farewell ceremony that involves walking around the Kaaba - a cube-like building in the centre of Mecca's Great Mosque - seven times. The railway, a project of the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, is expected to bring about a dramatic change in pilgrim transportation between the holy sites. It will have the capacity to transport 72,000 pilgrims in an hour. The time for transporting pilgrims from Arafat to Muzdalifa will be reduced to five minutes when the pilgrims move together from the plain of Arafat to Muzdalifa. And another five minutes will take them from Muzdalifa to Mina the following day. The Saudi Gazette notes that the new sophisticated equipment in hand to deal with emergencies during the 2010 Haj includes 110 fire engines and 75 fire and rescue vehicles equipped with ladders. Machinery secured for the ritual also includes special fire engines to deal with accidents and cranes that can load more than 55 tons of debris and rubble, in case buildings collapse. (WRITTEN Oct 2010)

30-day test run for Makkah metro (Arab News 2 Oct 2010)

Civil Defense draws up plan to make Haj safer (Saudi Gazette 21 Oct 2010)

Hundreds killed in Hajj stampede (BBC 26 Jan 2006)

What is the Hajj? (BBC 27 Dec 2006)

Why Is the Muslim Hajj So Dangerous? (Slate 12 Feb 2003)

Saudi Nabs Militants Planning Attacks During Haj ( 21 Dec 2007)

Date written/update: 2010-11-14