Time for trains to help pilgrims perform the haj

December 9, 2008
(Photo: Pilgrims on the plains of Arafat, 7 Dec 2008/Saudi Press Agency)

Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.

Many multi-billion-dollar improvements have been carried out over the past few years to improve safety for  pilgrims, expand the Grand Mosque and build tent cities in several areas where pilgrims have to stay for a day or more. The logistics of the haj are the main challenge that both pilgrims and the organizers face during the few days in which pilgrims are required to travel back and forth to several places to perform the rituals. There have been stampedes, fires and other accidents in the past as Muslims from around the world answered the call made by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.

The benefits were clear at this year’s haj, in which over two million pilgrims have taken part without any major incident. There is still room for improvement, though, and my preference is for a train system to help pilgrims get around to perform the rituals tracking the Prophet’s steps.

So many pilgrims walk between the buses and trucks carrying fellow pilgrims to the different sites that both those on foot and those on wheels end up spending the same time to reach their destinations. Trains could solve such problems and also reduce the chance of accidents like those that often take place on the routes connecting cities around Mecca.

(Photo: Pilgrims outside Mecca, 7 Dec 2008/Ahmed Jadallah)

Several developers, construction and logistics firms around the Gulf spring to mind when one imagines improvements that could also include more organised spaces to park buses and other vehicles once they offload their passengers at tent cities.

Housing could also be improved. Many pilgrims walk long distances and then sleep rough on the road side or on the plains, in mostly hot desert weather. The problem becomes worse in the summer when  temperatures reach up to 50 degrees Celsius.

Various transport projects have been mooted in the Saudi press. To my mind there is enough time to achieve a lot so pilgrims won’t have to hike around so much in the August heat. The dates of haj are based on the lunar calendar and shift forward by about 10 days a year, so the Saudis have about a decade to get all this done.

One person who would probably welcome better transport is our Cairo bureau chief Jonathan Wright, who wrote one vivid post from the haj last year entitled “On the haj, be fit and bring sturdy sandals.”

Have you been on the haj or are you online from the Mecca area right now? What improvements would you suggest?

Here are some of our videos from the haj:

Pilgrims pray for forgiveness:

Pilgrims stone the devil:

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