Photograph by STR, AFP/Getty
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Emergency workers carry the wounded after a deadly stampede in Saudi Arabia on September 24 killed hundreds during the hajj.

Photograph by STR, AFP/Getty

Deaths Near Mecca Reflect Dangers of Rising Crowds During Hajj

Stampede that killed hundreds in Saudi Arabia came during Muslim pilgrims’ ‘Stoning the Devil’ ritual.

More than 700 people were crushed to death Thursday in a stampede just outside Mecca during the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia that has been attended by millions of faithful over the centuries.

The incident in Mina, Saudi Arabia, was the latest in a series of tragedies that have marred the ritual journey to Islam’s holiest city, a journey that occasionally has turned deadly—typically because of the vast numbers of people who crowd into Mecca and nearby cities.

This year, believers were trampled to death during the last major ritual that pilgrims perform before entering Mecca, a city of more than 1.3 million people that is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. The tragedy occurred during the ceremonial Ramy al-Jamarat, or “stoning of the devil,” in which pilgrims toss rocks at three walls. Reports from Mina said it was unclear why the crowd there Thursday surged, causing the stampede.

Besides those killed, more than 800 were reported injured. It was the deadliest day for the Hajj since more than 1,400 pilgrims suffocated in a crowded tunnel near Mecca in 1990, also on the day of the stoning of the devil ritual.

In 2006, 340 people were killed and hundreds were injured after a stampede during the Ramy al-Jamarat ritual. Hundreds more have been killed during that rite over the years, with incidents occurring in 2004, 2003, 2001, 1994, and other years.

The core of this year’s Hajj began Tuesday and runs through Saturday, although many pilgrims extend the length of their pilgrimage and their visit to Mecca. The dates for the pilgrimage are set by the Islamic calendar, which follows lunar cycles.

The recent stampedes in Mina reflect how the Hajj has put increasing stress on Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. The number of pilgrims has ballooned from 200,000 in the 1960s to roughly 3 million today, more than doubling the area’s population for a week.

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Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles during the ritual “stoning of the devil” as part of the Hajj.

Last year, Saudi Arabia banned people from the three countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic—Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—from entering the country in order to assuage fears of spreading the disease, with so many people coming into close contact.

Thursday’s incident occurred about two weeks after more than one hundred pilgrims were killed and hundreds more were injured when strong winds pushed over a construction crane near the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

A Journey Through History

Making the journey to Mecca at least once in a lifetime is a requirement for all Muslims who are able-bodied and have the financial means to go. In Arabic, "Hajj" means "to intend a journey," and refers to the physical trip as well as to spiritual intentions. (See photos of the Hajj through time.)

During the event, pilgrims visit several holy sites to pray and participate in sacred rites. The focal point for most believers is the Kaaba, the holiest site in Mecca. The shrine dates to pre-Islamic times and is now part of the Masjid al-Haram, the largest mosque in the world.

When pilgrims enter the mosque, they walk seven times counterclockwise around the Kaaba. Each time, they kiss the Black Stone at the base of the shrine. If crowding doesn't permit them to reach the stone, they can point to it.

Watch: The story of the Hajj.

The Black Stone itself is shrouded in mystery. Muhammad is believed to have set it into the Kaaba's eastern wall in the year 605. It was broken up into pieces over the centuries and has been worn smooth by millions of hands. The faithful believe that it fell from heaven during the time of Adam and Eve.

Western historians long suspected that the Black Stone was a meteorite, although recent scholarship has cast doubt on that theory. In 2000 the British Natural History Museum suggested that the Black Stone may be a pseudometeorite, or a terrestrial rock that has been mistaken for a meteorite. The tradition of marking prayer sites with unusual rocks dates back thousands of years in the Middle East.

The Hajj is based on a pattern established by Muhammad in the seventh century, although some elements also build on pre-Islamic traditions. All pilgrims wear traditional dress that's designed to mask differences between the rich and the poor.

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The death toll from the stampede exceeded 700.

During the stoning of the devil ritual, pilgrims historically tossed stones at three pillars that are said to represent Satan. But in 2004, the pillars were converted to long walls, with catch basins for the pebbles, to prevent people from unintentionally hitting other pilgrims with tossed stones. The increasing size of Hajj crowds has made this an ongoing safety issue.

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