Passport

The Deadliest Stop on the Road on Mecca

Mina, where pilgrims take part in a symbolic stoning of the devil, has been the site of a disproportionate share of hajj deaths.

GRAPHIC CONTENT 
Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR
GRAPHIC CONTENT Saudi emergency personnel stand near bodies of Hajj pilgrims at the site where at least 717 were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on September 24, 2015. The stampede, the second deadly accident to strike the pilgrims this year, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defence service said. AFP PHOTO / STR

At least 717 people were killed and 863 injured in a stampede Thursday in Mina, the site of a pilgrim tent city around six miles east of the holy city of Mecca, as Muslims gathered to perform a key ritual of the hajj pilgrimage. It was the latest in a series of tragedies to occur at the site.

Thousands have died in hajj-related incidents over the past 25 years — including 1,426 in a single stampede in Mecca in 1990 — but Mina, where pilgrims take part in a symbolic stoning of the devil, has been the site of a disproportionate share of the carnage. In 1994, a stampede there killed 270 people. Three years later, a fire left 340 dead and 1,500 more injured. In 1998, another 180 were trampled after several people toppled from an overpass, causing mass panic, and 360 died in a stampede in 2006.

Thursday’s stampede occurred on a street between two pilgrim camps leading toward the religious site; more than 160,000 people had spent the night camped out in the desert around Mina.

The deadly accident in 2006 resulted from disruptions in the crowd caused by pilgrims tripping over luggage left on the ground at an entrance to the Jamarat Bridge, the foot route for the stoning ritual and the site of previous crowd deaths. The bridge has since been demolished and replaced by a much expanded version designed for better crowd management, as part of broader efforts on the part of the Saudi government to make the hajj safer. Some 106 medical teams were deployed throughout the pilgrimage sites this year to give emergency aid during the hajj, and construction efforts to greatly expand religious sites over the past few years led to temporary reductions in the number of pilgrims the government allowed to perform the pilgrimage. But the results of these efforts remain to be seen, and some of them have backfired: A crane involved in expansion projects collapsed this month, killing more than 100.

Experts say the risks of deadly stampede, as millions of people jam into a relatively small part of Saudi Arabia, may be built into the hajj as it exists today. “Part of the problem was architectural — the passageways were too narrow for the crowds,” Paul Wertheimer, the founder of Los Angeles-based consultancy Crowd Management Strategies, told Foreign Policy, discussing the ongoing carnage at Mina. “They brought in experts and widened the passageways. But the problem has not been solved. It looks like a classic failure of crowd management. They have to change the ceremony and the way they run it.”

Indeed, without strict controls, large crowds are dangerous, not just at chokepoints or in panics. “At occupancies of about 7 persons per square meter the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass,” crowd studies expert John Fruin wrote in a 1993 paper. “Shock waves can be propagated through the mass sufficient to lift people off of their feet and propel them distances of 3 m (10 ft) or more. People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off. Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe.”

That was a lesson Saudi organizers in Mina learned yet again, and in the most tragic way possible, on Thursday.

Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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