A Modern Transportation System in Makkah: Safety Precaution or Threat to Spirituality?

Nigar Yunus holds her husband’s arm with one hand, while clutching a plastic bag filled with pebbles in the other and marches forward into a thickening throng of pilgrims, until she can no longer feel the ground beneath her feet. Two dots in a swarming sea of white, the couple has no control over which direction they are walking in or how fast they are moving—they’re swiftly swept onwards by the force of the crowd. Though she feels uncomfortable, claustrophobic and scared, Nigar is also excited. She and her husband Khalid are about to take part in the Ramy al-Jamarat, a ritual symbolic of stoning the devil, just outside the city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia during the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, in 2001. Soon, they see three large pillars protruding from the sand and suddenly, a shower of rocks and slippers flies over their heads, as pilgrims begin hurling whatever they can grab hold of, towards the pillars. After throwing their own pebbles, Nigar and Khalid are swiftly shoved along, but when Khalid looks up, he sees something unusual. There appears to be a wall blocking the path ahead, which people are frantically scrambling to jump over. When they are about five metres away however, Khalid realizes it’s not a wall, but a pile of bodies on the ground. Some are still breathing, but no pilgrims stop to assist with rescue or aid; they’re desperately trying to save their own lives. Khalid is pushed forward, but doesn’t make it through. He falls on his face, on top of those who had previously fallen, while others scamper above him, stomping on his bare back. Enraged, he musters all of his strength to stand up, and searches for his wife. But the bodies on the floor are motionless, covered in dust, mud and dirt. Nigar had fallen a few steps behind Khalid, and as she struggles to keep her eyes open, a man reaches his hand to pull her out from under the mob of people trampling her. The look in his eyes confirms Nigar’s fear. It’s a look that says, “This woman is going to die if I don’t help her.” But, before he can be of any help, he too is pushed to the ground, joining the rubble of bodies forming a carpet on the desert sand, and Nigar slips out of consciousness.  

Though Nigar survived the stampede at the Jamarat in 2001, 35 others did not. Because the crowds are so large and the ritual is fuelled by such fervour, every year some pilgrims die due to stampeding.  In 2004, 251 pilgrims lost their lives during the ritual and two years later, 346 died in similar circumstances. When the Yunuses went for Hajj ten years ago, the city of Makkah hosted 1,913,263 pilgrims and this year, 2,927,717. Over the course of a decade the city has seen an increase of one million pilgrims, and to accommodate for the continual growth of the global Muslim population, the Saudi government has embarked on a number of expansion projects. Meanwhile, an incursion of commercialism in the form of lavish hotel buildings and shopping malls has started to fill the city, and an article written by Jerome Taylor comparing Makkah to Las Vegas published in the U.K.-based Independent earlier this year sparked debate amongst the global Muslim community. “Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city's raison d'être,” wrote Taylor.  Although Hajj has become increasingly modernized over the last decade in the government’s attempt to prevent the chaos that has led to stampedes in past years, some of its religious rituals have been reformed, somewhat obscuring their spiritual roots and causing some Muslims to doubt the authenticity of the modern Hajj experience. Nevertheless, major transformations of the pilgrimage have been necessary in making the journey more safe and orderly, as well as allowing more pilgrims to participate.

Every year, the city of Makkah is flooded with pilgrims eager to complete Hajj—one of the five pillars of Islam and a duty required at least once, of every Muslim whose health and finances can afford to take the trip. It takes place each year during the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which in 2011, occurred in early November. Throughout the pilgrimage, Muslims wear traditional Hajj attire—a white cloth draped around the waist and another draped over the shoulders for men and loose white pants, a long white tunic and head covering for women—clothing  symbolic of the simplicity of a coffin shroud, and a reminder of one’s ultimate end. Muslims visit the cities of Makkah and Medina, and take part in a number of rituals, one of the most televised being the seven rounds that pilgrims take around the Kaaba, a black cube-shaped structure that stands as the most sacred Islamic site in the world, marking the direction that Muslims across the globe face every day when praying. But for many pilgrims, the most exhilarating ritual takes place on the last day of Hajj at the Jamarat, and ends in the celebration of the Islamic holiday, Eid-al Adha. The night before, pilgrims traditionally collect pebbles in Muzdalifah, lay straw mats on the ground and sleep under the open desert sky, before waking up to start the journey to the Jamarat. Once there, pilgrims throw stones at three large pillars, a process symbolic of an event documented in both the Quran and the Bible’s Old Testament, when God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son. It is believed that the devil appeared to Abraham three times, tempting him to disobey, but each time, Abraham resisted the temptation. After finally blindfolding himself and performing the sacrifice, he uncovered his eyes to see that God had replaced his son with a goat. The ritual elicits the vigour and vehemence of pilgrims, which, combined with the colossal size of the crowd, makes stampeding almost inevitable.

To this day, Khalid finds it miraculous that he was able to spot his wife in the heap of fallen pilgrims during the 2001 stampede. “Nigar was completely pale, and there was no life in her eyes, though they were open, in shock,” recalls Khalid. “She lay frozen, covered in the dirt from people’s slippers that had trod on her.” Khalid grabbed her as an oncoming flow of human traffic pushed them forward. People were still stampeding. As Nigar slowly regained consciousness and balance, her first thought was that she had lost her slippers. Khalid meanwhile, had lost his eyeglasses, as well as the white cloth that had been draped around his shoulders. “Thank God you didn’t lose the bottom,” says a laughing Nigar, ten years later in their Toronto living room.

Since 2001, conditions have improved, and pilgrims rarely have traumatic experiences like Nigar’s. Toronto student Hafsa Khanani, 20, went for Hajj with her family in 2008, and her biggest struggle was adjusting to the (literally) hole-in-the-ground bathrooms. At the camps, Khanani’s group was fed lavish buffets, and each tent had a tea station with fresh biscuits. Some tents were even carpeted with artificial grass. The day before the Jamarat, Khanani and her family were given premade bags of pebbles for the ritual, unlike Nigar and Khalid, who had searched the plains of Muzdalifah for their own, which traditionally is seen as a spiritual process of the pilgrimage. Instead of sleeping on straw mats, Khanani and her family spent the night in warm sleeping bags and at the Jamarat, they were faced with a further “upgrading” of the pilgrimage. In 2004, the Saudi government had replaced the pillars with long walls with catch basins at their bases, which caught the thrown pebbles and in 2006, a multi-level bridge was built, with various ramps and tunnels. “Each group threw pebbles from a designated slope,” says Khanani. “Obviously it got a bit unruly, but it was pretty organized in terms of how unorganized it could have been,” she says.

Amer Shalaby, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto, also performed Hajj in December of 2008. Though he didn’t witness any stampedes, he saw the potential danger. “You have these huge masses of people moving together, and the thought that any small incident could trigger a stampede is very scary,” he says. As an advisor to the Centre of Research Excellence in Hajj & Umrah at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, Shalaby was invited to study possible modes of transportation for the city. He recently submitted a proposal suggesting that a cable car system be built, connecting parking facilities with the Grand Mosque  so that special needs groups, such as the elderly and sick, as well as emergency crews, can avoid the crowds of pilgrims pouring into the city by car and by foot. It will accommodate up to eight thousand passengers an hour in one direction, while by comparison, Toronto subway lines reach thirty to forty thousand passengers per hour in one direction. The cable car is only one component of many—Shalaby’s long-term goal is to create a multi-model transportation system, including a metro line and renovated bus system running through Makkah. Though construction dates are not yet set, Shalaby is confident that his plan will be employed, once approved by the government.

Toronto-based stock market trader Zamir Iqbal went for Hajj last month, where he observed the transportation situation in Makkah. Iqbal tried travelling to the different religious sites by bus, but found that the waiting lines were sometimes up to four hours long, for rides that were only ten or fifteen minutes. “One time, we were in a bus and it took four and a half hours just to get out of a parking lot,” he says. (An advantage of Shalaby’s cable car proposition is that travel time is not affected by traffic on the ground.) At the Jamarat, Iqbal stayed on the ground level, while other pilgrims scattered to the second and third floors. “It was very organized,” he says. “We all walked in a single designated lane when going in and coming out.” Iqbal’s accommodations were more than sufficient—his group stayed in tents that were air conditioned, each containing a refrigerator, tea kettle, fifteen sofa-beds and spacious washrooms with a cleaning attendant on duty throughout the day.

Some Muslims prefer the simplicity the pilgrimage is supposed to embody and are thus apprehensive about a transportation system, fearing it may add to the city’s clutter of commercialism. “The first thing you see when you enter Makkah is this massive crowd of pilgrims,” says Khanani.  “A metro or cable car line would take away from that image.” “Already you see the huge clock tower before even seeing the Kaaba or Grand Mosque, and it just takes away from the whole reason that you’re there.” Shalaby understands the concern, and his proposal suggests the incorporation of a “respect zone” around the Grand Mosque, pushing some of the newer developments away and linking low-rise development to the future metro lines. Other pilgrims question how modern transportation affects the authenticity of the pilgrimage. “Even when we were riding the bus leaving the city, I looked out the window and saw the tons and tons of people walking, and thought, ‘That’s real Hajj,’” says Khalid. “I envied them. As I sat on my nice comfy seat on the bus I envied the people walking.”

Over the last decade, the pilgrimage has become so modernized that it may make the journey endured by Nigar and Khalid seem slightly outdated, but black and white photographs paint an even simpler picture of Hajj and of Makkah, a city built around the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque that surrounds it. According to Islamic belief, the Kaaba was built sometime around 2000 BCE by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Today, high-rise buildings and hotels sprout from the desert sand, shrouding the Kaaba and giving the once unadorned city an air of industrialized grandeur. Earlier this year, former CIA intelligence officer Carol Fleming Al-Ajroush wrote a post titled “Saudi Arabia: It is okay to deface Makkah, but don’t let women drive,” on her blog, Americanbedu.com. Over the years, Al-Ajroush has witnessed the transformation of Makkah, the home of her late Saudi diplomat husband. “Old Makkah was a delight to explore. I say was, because many of the older homes, small hotels and other businesses were razed to make room for the new, ultra-modern Makkah,” says Fleming. “Now, a pilgrim can perform Hajj and then walk across the street to the new upscale shopping center within the Makkah Hilton.” Though she criticizes “the extreme commercialism that keeps gaining momentum in Makkah,” Fleming admits a modern transportation system would be useful. “It will make it streamlined and easier for pilgrims to get around the city,” she says. Iqbal agrees, and doesn’t believe it will affect the validity of the journey. “There’s nothing in Islam that says you have to only walk during Hajj,” he says.

Centuries ago, pilgrims didn’t have the luxury of opting for air-conditioned buses, nor did those planning the city’s development have access to machinery such as cranes to build multi-storey structures, but the technologies are now present, and aren’t likely to go away. “Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world,” wrote Taylor in his article for The Independent. Opinion is indeed divided, and it will be impossible to reach a solution that will please all Muslims across the spectrum of religiosity and progressiveness.  Though it’s difficult to draw lines in terms of the “authenticity” of Hajj, busses, metro lines and cable cars situated throughout Makkah shouldn’t make the pilgrimage any less legitimate—a revamped transportation system will only make the journey more efficient and inclusive, and is a step forward in protecting the wellbeing of pilgrims in future years. The same can’t be said however, for other contemporary innovations that plague the city and the pilgrimage. Lining the floors of tents with artificial grass may seem a trivial concern, but it’s only the beginning— if the city’s rate of commercialization persists, the pilgrimage will only further evolve, while the holiness of Makkah and spiritual roots of the Hajj are compromised. As for the authenticity of the pilgrimage, it is my opinion that Hajj will remain genuine until the day when Arab sheikhs, ten, fifty, or one hundred years from now, choose to fly in their private jets from one ritual to another, dropping their stones on the pillars at the Jamarat while soaring overhead and making their way back home just in time for Eid lunch with their families.