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Hajj 1438

This was my second Hajj experience. In case you are not aware, this is the annual gathering of Muslim pilgrims on their journey of faith. They celebrate the visit of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) to Makkah (Mecca) and his teachings; and the life and trials at Makkah of the prophet Abraham and his family (peace be upon them too). Attending a Hajj is one of the five “Pillars of Islam” that all able-bodied Muslims who have the wherewithal are expected to achieve during their lifetime. (The other four are the declaration of their faith, prayer, giving “zakat” to the poor/needy, and fasting during daylight hours in the holy month of Ramadan).

The number of attendees (Hajjis) is breathtaking. With 7.8 billion people in the world (UN, 2016) and almost a quarter of them being Muslim, this represents a theoretical demand of 1.9 billion people wanting to go on a Hajj. Presuming an adult lifespan of 50 years, this potential demand equates to 38 million people per year.

King Salman’s official title is “Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques”, King of Saudi Arabia. Being a responsible king, he, through his Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, understands the logistics and capabilities of the infrastructure and limits the numbers who can attend, and it is an all-ticket affair. This year there were 2,350,000 pilgrims allowed in, and the whole valley was very heavily policed to deter gatecrashers. 600,000 tickets went to Saudis, the remaining 1,750,000 to foreign Muslims. The UK quota was thought to be around 3,000 - this is my estimation based on an average quota of 1 Hajji per 1,000 Muslims registered in every country, and the UK having over 3.1m Muslims resident (UK Office of National Statistics, 2014).

Everything to do with the Hajj is impressive in its scale. There is a dedicated Hajj terminal at Jeddah Airport, and the Hajjis’ arrivals and departures are spread out over several weeks so that the immigration, health screening and onward bus transport is smoothed out. As part of their visit, many of the pilgrims also visit the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina for a day, either before or after the Hajj itself. The Hajj is a structured five-day series of choreographed religious rituals and supplications, and the Hajjis follow the order carefully. The BBC website has a helpful description of the Hajj rituals – see  

The Hajj site is in the holy valley “Al Mashaaer al Mugadassah” to the east of the city centre. Nearest the Holy Mosque (“Kabba”) is Jamarat where the three pillars representing the devil are stoned, then there are the sprawling camp sites at Mina and Muzdalifah, and at the far end of the valley is Mount Arafat.

Many of the Hajjis are elderly and/or infirm, and there are many casualties during the Hajj period. There are two huge hospitals at Mina, and these are staffed by medics and nurses drafted in from all over the Muslim world for the Hajj period. There are hundreds of “Red Crescent” first aid stations in the valley, and dozens of “Civil Defence” temporary fire and rescue stations too.

One day during the Hajj is designated to offering a sacrifice to Allah, and the Hajjis buy tokens representing a sheep, cow or camel to be slaughtered. There are four aircraft-hangar sized abattoirs at the side of the valley at Mina where over 150 “production” lines are in operation at once during the Hajj to deal with the million plus animals. Much of the meat is frozen and distributed year-round to the Muslim needy. See this link for a technical description (warning - not for those with a squeamish disposition): 


Not your usual tourist road sign

I was again on duty based at the Al Mashaaer Al Mugadassah Metro Southern Line. The Public Transport Authority licenses and oversees the safety performance of the specialist metro system there which operates for only seven days a year. It runs for 15km along the southern flank of the valley – there are plans for a northern line too, but this has not yet been constructed. It is a two-track railway that can carry an astonishing 72,000 passengers per hour in each direction. To put that into perspective 120,000 passengers arrive at Waterloo main line station each weekday a.m. peak – and that’s over three hours and with eight tracks. For a more detailed system description of the metro please look at last year’s blog posts and 


Pilgrims queuing at Mina 1 station waiting to go to Jamarat on the stoning day. Some of the tented city can be seen in the background stretching off to the hills.

My role was two-fold, to observe and supervise the safety processes in real time, and in the event of an accident occurring (mercifully there wasn’t one) be on the spot to facilitate whatever investigation needed to be done. I’m glad to say that the week passed without noticeable incident, the months of preparation and testing paid off. This year there were over 6,000 “seasonal” staff employed to marshal the pilgrims as they entered and left the stations, and assist them on the platforms. Unlike at Waterloo, the travellers here are not hardened commuters, but herds of bewildered people speaking their own diverse languages, many of whom have rarely been out of their towns and villages before, and the majority certainly hadn’t been on a train prior to coming to Makkah. There is a great empathy from the temporary staff to the Hajjis, they are all brother Muslims after all. The staff look out for those that are struggling, and give what assistance they can, be it a bottle of water or summoning medical staff. That said, there was one Hajji who knows a lot about railways, a manager from the SRO railway at Dammam whom I know well. My colleague and I challenged each other to spot him during the week, this turned out to be the ultimate equivalent of "Where's Wally?", looking for an individual amongst millions of identically dressed pilgrims! We didn't spot him. 


Pilgrims waiting outside a station for the services to start. The yellow structure is an electronic ticket verifier - the pilgrims wear tags on their wrists.

I had to keep my PTA permit handy and show it at every checkpoint to let me move about and do my tasks. This was certainly the most intensive period of work for me during the year, and I worked long days and walked many kilometres in the sweltering heat. As the Islamic year is lunar based, the Hajj gets 11 or 12 days earlier every year. If I am still here next year, the Hajj will start in the middle of August. At least the Hajjis come dressed for the event, the men wear two simple strips of white cloth and get a head shave on the last day. I was lugging a rucsack with PPE and camera about and wearing long trousers. That said, it was another unforgettable experience, and a privilege to have witnessed the biggest migration on earth.

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