why such a human toll?

why such a human toll?

More than 1,000 pilgrims died during the pilgrimage to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) due to scorching heat. More than half of the victims would not have had official authorization for this annual gathering, which was held from Friday June 14 to Wednesday June 19. Around 1.8 million people participated in the hajj this year. This is one of the five pillars of Islam: every Muslim must perform this pilgrimage at least once in their life if they have the material means and physical capacity.

How can we explain such a human toll? Deaths linked to very high heat during the pilgrimage to Mecca are not a first, cases have already existed but “much more diffusely”as indicated by Sylvia Chiffoleau, CNRS researcher at the Rhône-Alpes historical research laboratory in Lyon and author of the book The Journey to Mecca (1), published by Éditions Belin in 2017. This year, the temperature reached 51.8°C at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holy city of Islam, in western Saudi Arabia.

Many victims without a license

Each year, tens of thousands of faithful attempt to participate in the pilgrimage without having the necessary permits, paid for and granted according to quotas, which give access in particular to air-conditioned facilities. At the beginning of June, Saudi Arabia announced that it had turned back more than 300,000 unregistered pilgrims from Mecca, including more than 150,000 foreigners who entered the kingdom on tourist visas, without going through official channels.

Many of them participated in the rituals which took place over several days, in particularly trying conditions due to the heat, but without being able to benefit from the air-conditioned infrastructure put in place by the Saudi authorities. “Mechanisms are put in place at the pilgrimage level, but only for pilgrims who have the permit, a special authorization which allows them to also have access to refreshment stops”, explains Sylvia Chiffoleau.

“Gigantism makes things difficult”

The Saudi authorities take care to supervise the pilgrimage. “It is a firm desire on their part but the gigantism makes things difficult, insists Sylvia Chiffoleau. Almost every year, there are deaths even without a massive accident. » According to her, there are many elderly, more fragile people who make the hajj. Especially since in Muslim tradition, dying in Mecca or Medina can be considered a blessing for believers. In addition, the extreme attendance of this global event poses significant security and transport problems.

Transporting pilgrims on Saudi Arabia’s roads can be perilous when endless traffic jams are created by buses full of worshippers. In 2023, a pilgrim bus burst into flames after a collision on a bridge, killing 20 people and causing around 30 injuries. In 2015, a crowd movement caused the deaths of more than 2,000 people, considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the pilgrimage. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has carried out significant work to facilitate the movement of worshipers, notably with the expansion of the Grand Mosque to accommodate more than a million worshipers at the same time.

With the Vision 2030 plan, launched in 2016 by Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, to diversify the Saudi economy, “the pilgrimage will take on a much greater scaleindicates Sylvia Chiffoleau. Infrastructure is developing to be able to accommodate more pilgrims”. Saudi Arabia targets 30 million pilgrims to Mecca and Medina in 2030, “it’s a kind of endless race between constraints and equipment”.

(1) The Journey to Mecca. A global pilgrimage to the land of Islam, Belin, coll. “Alpha”, 2017, 400 p., €9.90.

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