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The Hajj

The hajj is a duty that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in his or her lifetime, provided the person has the financial means and physical health to do so. During the Hajj, about two million pilgrims from all over the world are concentrated in a relatively small space for a short period of time. The scale of this event, and the very basic living conditions it entails may be overwhelming to some. Housing, food, and sanitation are very basic.

Foreign Muslim residents of the Kingdom may perform the Hajj once every five years. Advance approval must be obtained from an immigration office with the approval of the Saudi sponsor. The Saudi government controls the flow of visitors through quotas, allowing each country one pilgrim for every thousand Muslim citizens. Indonesia sends around two hundred thousand people, which is the largest contingent, followed by Pakistan and India.

The time of the pilgrimage is during the final month of the Islamic calendar year or "Dhu Al-Hijjah". When they arrive in the vicinity of Mecca, pilgrims perform a complete ablution: replace their clothing with two white linen cloths, one for their lower body and one for the upper; and abstain from cutting their hair or finger nails from this point until their pilgrimage is completed. In this way each pilgrim is as his brother before the eyes of God, there is no distinction of class, wealth, knowledge, or piety. The pilgrimage takes several days and requires visits to the Ka'bah (the first house of worship built by Abraham) in the center of Mecca; a visit to the hills of Safa and Marwah where, at God's command, Hagar, Abraham's wife, sought water for her son, Ishmael; a visit to the plain of Arafat where Mohammed delivered his farewell sermon; a visit to Mina, an oasis where pilgrims throw stones at three pillars which symbolize Satan and where pilgrims make a ritual sacrifice of a goat or sheep. This feast of the sacrifice, "Eid Al-adha" is the high point of the pilgrimage. Following this, pilgrims may cut their hair and fingernails, and don their ordinary clothing. They must make a final visit to the Ka'bah and their pilgrimage is complete. Those who have completed the Hajj are held in very high esteem among their peers.

All travel plans should be made through a travel agent in order to book accommodations in advance. Hajj and Umrah visas are required and are valid only for travel to the two holy cities. Onward travel to Riyadh or other cities in Saudi Arabia is not permitted.

King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah is a large and modern facility, with a special terminal with facilities to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. However, due to the extremely large number of people arriving, waiting time at the airport upon arrival during the Hajj may be as long as ten hours. Pilgrims should plan on a lengthy wait before leaving the airport on their way to Makkah or Medina. Travelers with only carry-on bags will find baggage transfer at the airport much easier than will those with checked baggage. Some Hajj pilgrims now fly directly to Medina, and proceed to Makkah by road. There is no airport in Makkah.

Before leaving home, travelers should make at least two copies of their passports, including the pages stamped with Saudi visas. One copy should be left with someone at home and one taken with the traveler. Passports are turned over to Saudi officials upon arrival in the Kingdom and will be given back immediately prior to departure. Upon arrival, all pilgrims are issued an identification card or wrist-band. Travelers should carry this identification at all times. Umrah visitors do not receive an identification card or wrist-band.

A money belt or pouch is the best way to carry valuables, and thefts (including passports) have been reported to Consulate General Jeddah by Hajj and Umrah pilgrims at the pilgrimage sites. Upon arrival it is possible to buy what is known as a "Hajj belt," which is somewhat larger than American equivalents. Pilgrims should bring sufficient funds to cover any unforeseen emergencies. If pilgrims need to purchase Saudi Riyals, there is a bank at the Hajj terminal, but it is not continuously open. Exchange and ATM facilities are available in the city of Makkah, but not at the holy sites.

Visitors should check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their travel agent, and a Saudi consulate or embassy regarding recommended or required shots. Cases of Meningicoccal disease or meningitis in Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia are rare. However, during the Hajj season when there is an increased incidence of this disease among those traveling in the vicinity of Makkah and Medina, the Saudi Ministry of Health may require proof of immunization against meningitis.

Tight control is exercised on entry points in respect of pilgrims and "Umra" visitors, and thorough surveillance shall be made in respect of visitors coming from countries infected with diseases subject to the International Health Regulations, in addition to isolation of suspect cases and surveillance of their contacts. Foods carried by visitors and pilgrims are banned and not allowed into the country. Special rules apply for foods imported for commercial purposes.

Travelers should expect extremely crowded conditions during the Hajj. Temperatures in Makkah range between 68 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit in February and March. There are many facilities providing water, public accommodations, and other amenities.

Followers of Ayatollah Khomeini tried to stir up trouble by disrupting the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, on several occasions during the 1980s, but heavy security controls usually succeeded in preventing major incidents. In July 1987, however, more than 400 people died as a result of a serious riot instigated by thousands of Iranian pilgrims. Khomeini called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to avenge the pilgrims' deaths. Saudi Arabia, in turn, accused Iran of staging the riots to support its demands that Mecca and Medina be internationalized as pan-Islamic cities. Several Saudi Shia were tried and executed for exploding bombs at Saudi oil facilities in 1988, probably as retaliation by Iran and its sympathizers against restrictions on Iranian attendance at the annual pilgrimage after the 1987 riots.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran in connection with two bomb incidents during the 1989 hajj in apparent retaliation for Saudi restrictions against Iranian pilgrims. Sixteen Kuwaiti Shia were executed for these attacks.

Some easing of relations with Iran occurred after Khomeini's death in 1989. During the 1990 pilgrimage, more than 1,400 pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated after they were stampeded in an underground tunnel. The incident, however, was not linked to Iran. Disputes over the size of the Iranian contingent and rules governing their conduct prevented Iranians from participating in the hajj for three years. In 1991 the Saudis accepted a quota of 115,000 Iranian pilgrims and allowed political demonstrations in Mecca. Although peaceful, the demonstrations included strident attacks on the United States and Israel.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia ended without further incident 26 September 2015, as the death toll from the stampede 24 September 2015 there reached 769. Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said that 934 people were injured in the crush at Mina, on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca. Iranians constitute the largest group of deaths identified so far, 136. Iranian state TV said a former ambassador to Lebanon was among more than 300 Iranians still missing. Tehran accused the Saudis of "crimes" and incompetence, and it vowed to take legal action in international courts.

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Page last modified: 13-12-2015 18:00:52 ZULU