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1,300 people died in heat-stricken Hajj pilgrimage

A man affected by the scorching heat is helped by another Muslim pilgrim and a police officer during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina on June 16.
Fadel Senna
/
AFP via Getty Images
A man affected by the scorching heat is helped by another Muslim pilgrim and a police officer during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina on June 16.

Updated June 23, 2024 at 19:09 PM ET

The Hajj is a journey of sacrifice that able Muslims are required to take once in their life. But as temperatures around Mecca this past week soared above 115 degrees, people collapsed, hundreds died and many were treated for heat exhaustion.

Saudi officials confirmed on Sunday that the death toll had topped 1,300.

The Hajj follows a lunar calendar so it will not always occur during such heat. Still, one study shows Saudi Arabia is heating up much more quickly than other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

A British imam and Hajj guide with Bilal Tours, Ather Hussain, says everywhere he looked, people were struggling or fainting from the heat. He’s been to Mecca many times, but says this year it was different.

“It’s just really, really hard. I’ve never seen so many people struggle collectively at the same time, but at the same time, I saw people doing whatever they could to help,” he told NPR from Saudi Arabia this week.

Saudi Arabia says more than 1.8 million Muslims from around the world converged in and around Mecca for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage that concluded Wednesday. The Hajj is performed over about five days, but can include weeks of travel, as well as long distances of walking, physical exertion and intense prayer.

Images from the Hajj show many pilgrims carrying umbrellas for shade. Saudi Hajj authorities advised people to drink lots of water and avoid going outside certain times of day. They also said people did not need to walk to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, housing Islam’s holiest site — the cube-shaped Kaaba — for every prayer.

The heat affected everyone

Saudi Arabian authorities confirmed on Sunday that 1,301 people died at this year’s Hajj. Eighty-three percent of those who died were "unauthorized to perform Hajj and having walked long distances under direct sunlight without adequate shelter or comfort. Among the deceased were several elderly and chronically ill individuals," the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

About "1.3 million preventive services were delivered, including early detection, vaccinations, and medical care upon arrival," the agency added, without specifying which services were for issues related to extreme heat.

Saudi Arabia, which provides free health care for pilgrims, earlier said that nearly 3,000 people sought treatment for heat during the Hajj.

One of them was Taha Assayid, a 40-year-old from Egypt. He says he was hospitalized last weekend after spending a few hours in the sun trying to make it into the mosque where it's believed Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon nearly 1,400 years ago.

“I am a young man and was hospitalized, so just imagine what it was like for people in their 60s and over 70 years old,” Assayid says.

People push themselves during the Hajj, often beyond what’s required. Many have saved up money their entire lives for the chance to experience these ancient rites.

Moderation is key to faith and Hajj

The pilgrimage is a key pillar of Islam, but the faith doesn’t require people to sacrifice their lives for the Hajj.

Hussain, the imam and writer from Leicester, England, says he helped lead a group of about 140 pilgrims this year. He says some of the older people in the group were insistent on walking long distances to perform some of the rituals, but he had this advice for them: "You can always delegate. You can give that responsibility to someone else," he says. "That education ... is definitely something we need to do more. We need to explain to our people that, 'look, you don't need to go to extreme circumstances.' "

Still, he says the weather was extremely hot for everyone, young and old. "Even the locals, you know, it hit them as well. And if the locals are telling you that the Mecca is hot, then you know it's hot," he says.

Even under the hot sun, prayers at the Kaaba and on the Day of Arafat can offer moments of reflection and inner peace amid the bustling crowd. The kingdom's ruling Al Saud family takes pride in the prestige and stature that hosting the Hajj and managing Islam's holiest site brings.

They’ve drawn criticism in the past over mismanagement of the Hajj after a stampede in 2015 and crane collapse killed thousands, but the kingdom took measures that have prevented such accidents since then.

The heat, however, presents its own challenges. Temperatures are increasing around the world, driven in part by burning the kinds of fossil fuels of which Saudi Arabia is a top exporter.

A study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in March by the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Saudi Arabia found that during a hot summer in 1987, around 1,000 people died during the Hajj. The study found that temperatures have gone up in Mecca since then, outpacing warming in other parts of the word.

To mitigate this, the Saudi government is planting more trees around Hajj sites and has coated the ground in heat-reflective pavement. Volunteers hand out water, juice and umbrellas to pilgrims who walk under misting systems to keep cool.

Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Omran says he has been to Mecca more than 20 times. This was the hottest he's ever seen it, he says.

Despite crackdowns by Saudi police, Omran says many Egyptians on the Hajj this year walked everywhere on foot and had no hotels to cool off in because they were there on tourist visas, not the proper Hajj visas. He says this is a consequence of Egypt's currency plummeting and companies operating the Hajj in Egypt jacking up prices.

Omran says he keeps returning to Mecca for the spiritual pull it has on him, but he says there are limits to everything.

“I am not going to take risks and kill myself to perform the Hajj. I will do it legally and find the best official way to reach Saudi Arabia so I can find health care, and not expose myself to misery and suffering,” he says.

The Hajj is costly, physically demanding, and tiring.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people from across the world wearing simple white terry cloth robes, their hands extended in repentance and weeping in humility and prayer, it’s an unparalleled experience for many.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.