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Hajj 1437

The world's largest annual gathering of humanity took place this week. In Mecca (Makkah) over 2 million Muslims from all over the world gathered to take part in a series of religious supplications and follow in the footsteps of the Propher Mohammed (peace be upon him). 1437 lunar years ago he visited Mecca and spent time in and around the area visiting various sites and doing things of great significance to the Islamic religion. To commemorate this, the annual Hajj takes place for seven days starting on the 7th day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah. It was expected that this would start on the 8th of September, but the new crescent moon wasn't seen by the religious leader on the expected first night of the month, so the month started a day late and the Hajj commenced on the 9th September. As I was taking part of the Railway Commission's oversight of the metro operations I had my flights and hotel booked in advance and was caught out. But that's just part of the rich fabric of life here. 

I described the metro in an earlier blog. Bur seeing it in operation with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims using it lent an entirely different perspective. It is difficult to describe the difference, but think perhaps of the analogy of comparing a blank canvas and some pots of paint in early 1888, and a couple of months later Van Gogh had created his Sunflowers masterpiece. Chalk and cheese. I spent much of the week out and about on the metro system, with the occasional visit to the depot and the operations control centre. There are 3 station  groups, serving different areas of the valley. Each station group has 3 platforms, which are linear.

Metro layout:

(W) Jamarat - Mina 2 - Mina 1 ------ Muzdalifah 3 - Muzdalifah 2 - Muzdalifah 1 ------------- Arafat 3 - Arafat 2 - Arafat 1 (E)

The timetable and service intensity varied from day to day and also by time of day depending on the needs of the Hajj. Sometimes the service was a classic metro with trains running end to end and calling at all stations. This was the case, for example on the first day when the pilgrims were arriving and settling into their camps which are scattered along the 18km valley to the east of Mecca city centre. The majority of the camps are in the Muzdalifah area. 

On the third day, the service in the morning was from stations at the west end to the 3 Arafat stations at the east end. The pilgrims all then went off to be near to Mount Arafat for sunset prayer and returned en masse about 18.30 to return from the Arafat stations to the Muzdalifah stations. This was the most intensive part of the service and when the trains shuttled in parallel tidal waves back and forth along the same tracks. It had to be seen to be believed, it is the highest capacity and intense passenger service in the world, and moved at least 72,000 people every hour.


Trains operating in parallel convoy.

The pilgrims were an interesting lot. They came from all over the world but there were 3 countries that seemed supply the bulk. These were Saudi Arabia (of  course), Pakistan, and India. There were also sizeable numbers of Iranians, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Malayans and Africans too. There were very few Iranians this year, there is a developing schism and war of words between the Saudi Sunnis and the Iranian Shias which I really hope won't develop into actual fisticuffs. The Iranian ayatollah had banned his people from travelling to the Hajj this year, but even so there were still some there carrying the Iranian flag - perhaps they were migrant workers in KSA. The dress code - I hope that is the correct term - for men is two white blankets, one wrapped around the waist and the other around the shoulders. For the women, they seemed to wear their usual clothes for their own country, but always with the hair covered. The ages ranged from newborn (at least one recorded birth this year but at that age not really a pilgrim, more a happy coincidence) to very aged indeed. There seemed to be many nonagenarians there this week. As the week progressed the pilgrims went through a series of rituals, prayers, supplications, journeys, symbolic stoning of the devil, hair cutting and goodness knows what else. They stayed in tented camps in their tour parties, and permanent washing / toilet amenity blocks were scattered about the valley like big red and blue monoliths rising out of the sea of off-white tents. Some of the tents were air-conditioned, and there must have been some canteen facilities there too. The pigrims were up and about at all hours of the day and night, and depending on what level of pilgimage they booked (first class, second class etc) their itinerary was varied to spread the impact on the facilities and transport as much as possible. Thus the railway operated for at least 22 hours each day. As the week progressed,the most noticeable things about the pilgrims was their increased weariness/fatigue, however they soldiered on buoyed by their faith but with increased fragility. The second noticeable thing was the smell. Now I know the source of the phrase "the great unwashed". But that's unfair, as part of the preparation for prayer rutual for Muslims is cleansing. Even so, after a week out and about in 45 degree heat something had to give. 


 Hajjis queuing for trains

The poor souls often did not have the energy to return to their camps, some of which were several kms walk from the nearest station. We would find them sleeping everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Part of the 7,500 station staffs' duties was to keep them going. Free botthes of water were handed out, cooling water was sprayed on the pilgrims, and loud hailers were used to encourage them and direct them hither and thither. They came and went in groups of 50, with a flag bearer at the head of each posse. 50 was the ideal number, as it is the amount of people allocated to each train door. With 60 doors open at the platform / train interface, each train would swallow and disgorge about 3,000 people.


 Station signs we don't get in the UK.

 All in all it was a privilege to see a Hajj from close up. An experience few non-Muslims are able to get.  


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