Tragedy struck Mecca on Thursday when a stampede claimed the lives of at least 700 people and injured 800 more.
(Update: These original death toll estimates, provided by Saudi authorities, may have grossly underestimated the damage. It's more likely that about twice as many people died in the trampling.)
The stampede occurred after two massive parties of pilgrims crossed paths at an intersection in Mina valley, 2 miles from Mecca. The narrow streets were soon overcrowded.
Journalist Khaled Al-Maeena suggests it may have been a wave of pilgrims hurrying to complete the journey that triggered the stampede. Claustrophobia ballooned to an immense panic and in minutes the streets were lined with the bodies of the fallen.
Although this marks the most enormous tragedy to occur at Mecca during the hajj in the past 25 years, it certainly is not a only one.
Periodically, the hajj becomes a perilous endeavor. In 1994, around 270 people were crushed during a stampede. In 1997, a ball of fire swept through an overpopulated tent city stationed in Mina; 340 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 suffered injuries. In 2006, the Luluat Alkheir, a hotel in Mecca, suddenly crumbled—leaving 70 lifeless amid its ruins.
Hajj pilgrimages are a pillar of the Islamic faith. All Muslims who are financially and physically capable of embarking on this journey are required to do so.
The stampede followed the annual stoning of the jamarat or “stoning the devil” ritual. During the ceremony, millions of the devout throw stones at pillars representative of the devil. The event is usually two days long and is meant to mirror the biblical Abraham’s stoning of the devil at Mina.
The “stoning the devil” event traditionally marks a dangerous (penultimate) conclusion to the pilgrimage.
"I hope that the Saudi authorities would take a closer look at what needs to be done. The extra measures, the technology, the crowd control, trying to find ways and means to prevent such catastrophes—not only because it's the responsibility of the kingdom to provide safety, but because it also reflects politically badly on the authorities in the kingdom," said London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges.
After the stampede of 2006, the Saudi government funneled 1.2 million dollars into an infrastructure program intended to prevent further stampedes. A five-story “bridge” was erected nearby which would allow people to throw stones away from the congestion.
Helicopter and camera surveillance are also employed to monitor the happenings and to help maintain safe passage for the pilgrims. Unfortunately, with an urge to alleviate their heat exhaustion and dehydration provoking the crowd’s anxiety and subsequent panic, the security measures proved a non-factor.
But Saudi officials are not surprised.
“We are expecting worse every time,” revealed an anonymous Saudi activist.