Holy Sites Expansion Project Ensures Comfort and Safety for Hajj
Two million pilgrims perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in
Makkah every year. Saudi Arabia has built a vast city of tents (above) and a
network of roads, ports, airports and other facilities to serve the pilgrims.
As has happened every year for the past 14 centuries, pilgrims from around
the world gather in Makkah to perform the Hajj - the religious high point of
every Muslim's life. The Hajj is celebrated in the second week of Zul Hijjah, the
twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. This year the pilgrimage will take
place in April from the 26th to the 30th. Though the rites the pilgrims perform
have remained unchanged, the setting has undergone dramatic transformation.
Whereas worshippers accepted hardship as part of the pilgrimage in the past,
today the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provides a vast array of services and
facilities to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for the two million Muslims
who gather in Makkah for the Hajj.
Performing the Hajj is a unique and moving experience for a Muslim, who is
obligated to make the trip at least once during his or her life. All Muslims are
required to "make their way" to Makkah, the birthplace of Islam, if they are able
financially and physically. Not to be confused with Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage
which can be performed at any time, the Hajj is performed once each year. The
different rites of the Hajj take place at the holy sites of Arafat, Muzd'alifah
and Mina, areas located near Makkah, and in the Holy Mosque in the city. The Hajj
is one of the religious duties known as the Five Pillars of Islam; the others are
Shahadah (declaring that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the
Messenger of God), Salat (the daily prayers), Zakat (giving alms to the poor) and
Sawm (fasting during the holy month of Ramadan).
After completion of the latest expansion project, the Holy Mosque in Makkah (above)
can now accommodate as many as one million worshippers at a time. Below, the
mosque as it appeared in the late 19th century.
Beginning the pilgrimage means donning the Ihram. The Ihram is the white
garment each pilgrim wears throughout the Hajj. For men, it consists of two
seamless pieces of cloth, one covering the body from waist to ankle and the other
draped around the shoulder. Women usually wear a simple dress and headcovering.
The white garments symbolize purity and also represent the equality of all
Muslims before God, rich or poor, regardless of race or gender. After bathing and
dressing in the attire, the pilgrim enters a state of purity. This peaceful state
of mind, also called Ihram, is a sign of the pilgrim's intent to perform the
Once dressed in the Ihram, the pilgrims then recite the talbiyyah as they
officially embark on their religious journey:
Here I am at Your service, O Lord,
As the sun rises on the ninth day of Zul Hijjah, pilgrims move out from
Makkah toward Arafat, the starting point of the pilgrimage. Waves of people make
their way towards the Plain of Arafat for the wuquf, "the standing," the central
rite of the Hajj. The massive gathering reminds the pilgrims of the Day of
Judgment and of the Prophet Muhammad's pilgrimage to the exact same place. Many
climb to the Mount of Mercy where the Prophet delivered his Farewell Sermon and
enjoy the brotherhood of Muslims from around the world. The day at Arafat is
emotional and pilgrims leave feeling renewed and joyful, asking God for
forgiveness on the sacred spot where the Prophet Muhammad once stood. After
sunset, the mass of worshippers move towards Muzd'alifah, an open plain about
halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they spend the night in prayer and
here I am.
Here I am. No partner do You have.
Here I am.
Truly, the praise and the favor is Yours, and the domain.
No partner do You have.
The dawning of the next day, Yom Al-Nahr, the Day of Sacrifice, is welcomed
by further meditation and prayer. This day is also the first day of Eid Al-Adha,
the Feast of Sacrifice, which is a three-day celebration that is shared by all
Muslims around the world. Pilgrims sacrifice a goat or a sheep in commemoration
of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son in accordance with God's wish. This
rite serves as an offer of thanksgiving to God and is a reminder to share with
those who are less fortunate. Muslims who are not in Makkah celebrate with their
families at home, but they are reminded of those who are a part of the
festivities in the holy sites. With the increasing number of pilgrims, the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognized a need for a facility to process and package
the large amounts of surplus meat during the Hajj season and in 1982 established
a plant which successfully distributes the meat to needy people around the world.
Bridges, roads and tunnels facilitate the movement of two million pilgrims to the
holy sites outside Makkah (above). Pilgrims arrive from all over the world at the
Hajj Terminal of the King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah (below).
Traveling back to Makkah, the worshippers visit the Holy Mosque to perform
the Tawaf Al-Ifadah, the circumambulation of the Ka'abah seven times. The
Ka'abah, a cube-shaped structure located in the center of the mosque, was
originally built by Abraham with his son Ishmael. Rebuilt over the centuries, it
is the Ka'abah that the world's one billion Muslims turn to five times a day in
prayer. The only piece of Abraham's original structure which remains is the Black
Stone, now encased in silver and located in a corner of the structure.
Symbolizing God's oneness at the center of all things, the Ka'abah and the Black
Stone are not objects of worship. Rather, they represent a shrine consecrated to
God. As worshippers move in unison around the cube, the Ka'abah stands as a
symbol of unity between God and mankind.
While at the Holy Mosque, pilgrims commemorate an episode in the life of
Abraham's wife, Hagar, who ran between two hills, Safa and Marwah, praying to God
for help as she searched for water for her son Ishmael. Miraculously, water
gushed forth out of a rock at the feet of the small child and still flows today
from the well known as Zamzam. Pilgrims celebrate Hagar's faith in God by
"running" back and forth between the hills, a ritual known as the Sa'y.
Afterwards they drink from the well. A long building, the Masa'a, has been
constructed enclosing the hills so that pilgrims can comfortably perform the Sa'y
protected from intense heat and harsh weather.
The next three days, known as Ayam Al-Tashreeq, are spent in Mina. Each
afternoon the pilgrims cast seven small pebbles at three stone pillars that
represent Satan's temptations. This is symbolic of the attempt to cast away evil
and affirm faith in God. Pilgrims clip a lock of their hair as a symbolic end of
Ihram. The pilgrimage culminates with the Tawaf Al-Wida, a farewell
circumambulation of the Ka'abah.
Meeting the needs of such a large gathering of people as the Hajj requires a
massive logistical undertaking, one which Saudi Arabia successfully conducts
After performing the rites of the Hajj in Makkah, it is common for pilgrims
to visit the city of Madinah and the Prophet's Mosque where the Prophet Muhammad
is buried in a simple tomb under a green dome. The second holiest city of Islam,
Madinah was the administrative center of Islam in the early part of the seventh
century. It has always played an important role as a major educational center for
Islamic scholars, and it holds a special place in the heart of Muslims as the
city that welcomed Muhammad when he left Makkah in exile.
In the past, Muslims often performed the Hajj through much hardship. During
the Middle Ages, the trip was long and dangerous for pilgrims traveling from afar
and sometimes extended into many years. Gangs of bandits also frequented the
pilgrimage routes and extorted payments from the travelers. However, during the
early part of this century, performing the Hajj became much safer for all Muslims
with the foundation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
During the latest phase of expansion, launched by the Custodian of the Two Holy
Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz in 1985, the total area of the Holy Mosque in
Makkah was more than doubled and the number of worshippers it can accommodate
almost tripled to more than a million.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always placed great importance on its role as
custodian of the holy cities. When the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud extended his rule to the Hijaz,
he took steps towards stabilizing and securing the pilgrimage routes. He later
appointed his son, Prince Faisal, to improve the conditions for visiting
pilgrims. Ever since King Abdul Aziz, each Saudi ruler has similarly dedicated
himself to the development of the holy sites and pilgrim services. The result
today is a logistical achievement of impressive proportions as the number of
pilgrims has dramatically increased with the dawn of jumbo jets and international
Although some pilgrims still arrive from neighboring countries by land and by
sea, much like the pilgrims from hundreds of years ago, more than 90 percent of
pilgrims coming from abroad arrive by air. King Abdul Aziz International Airport,
located 11.8 miles from Jeddah, boasts three terminals; one for domestic flights,
one for international flights, and one devoted solely to pilgrims entering the
The world's largest air-conditioning project was completed at the Holy Mosque to
allow pilgrims to perform the holy rituals in comfort when the Hajj coincides
with the hot summer months.
An expanded transportation infrastructure has been built to accommodate the
massive influx of visitors, and to move the pilgrims from their points of entry
to the different areas where Hajj events take place. Extensive walkways and
bridges allow for comfortable movement on foot and protect pedestrians from the
cars, trucks and buses which crowd the streets around the holy sites. Great
effort has been exerted to ensure that everyone is not only transported, but
guided and instructed on the precise schedule of the Hajj. Safely moving two
million people from one place to another all at the same time, in addition to
providing adequate food, water, shelter and medical care, is a monumental
undertaking which requires months of preparation and logistical planning.
All pilgrims must be registered with an official government-supervised guide
establishment which is in turn responsible for the pilgrims throughout their
visit. Once in the Kingdom, pilgrims are housed in various residential complexes
or in large tent-cities, but always in accordance with strict health and safety
standards established by the Pilgrimage Higher Committee. The tent-cities are
equipped with all necessary services including sanitary facilities, traffic
police and medical centers. To further ensure the safety of all worshippers, the
pilgrimage staff overseeing the entire complex are equipped with two-way radios,
closed-circuit televisions and helicopters.
The latest expansion of the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah (above) has increased its
size by ten-fold, allowing a million worshippers to simultaneously visit the
second holiest site in Islam. The recent expansion work took a decade to
In addition to the comprehensive development around Makkah, improvements to
the actual buildings have also continued. Each monarch since King Abdul Aziz has
taken a keen interest in expanding the public area of the Holy Mosque. The first
Saudi expansion of the mosque began in 1955 and included the construction of the
new Masa'a, the building enclosing the hills of Safa and Marwah. New drainage
systems were installed to protect the complex from floods and much of the marble
on the walls and floors was refurbished. After the first expansion, the mosque
could accommodate half a million worshippers in the courtyard and on the upper
roof. The previous complex had had an area of 27,000 square meters (288,900
square feet) while after the project the space topped 152,000 square meters
(1,626,400 square feet).
Since the original Saudi expansion, other projects have included the repair
and refurbishment of the Ka'abah, the installation of a ventilation and cooling
system and the opening up of the central space around the Ka'abah to allow more
area for pilgrims to perform tawaf, the circumambulation.
Under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz, the
expansion continued with the goal of maximizing every possible space to provide
more room for worshippers in and around the mosque. One aspect of the project was
the construction of two buildings for escalators each with the capacity of
carrying 15,000 persons per hour to the roof. This is in addition to the existing
stairs. The floors were covered with a cool, heat-resistant marble to keep the
building comfortable and air filters, fans and windows were installed to
circulate the air and achieve maximum cooling.
A radio network and state-of-the-art sound system were installed throughout
the entire complex so that worshippers in the mosque, on the roof and in the
public areas outside can all be a part of the worship and prayers.
Accessing the waters of Zamzam has been made easier by the construction of a
new plumbing system which carries the water throughout the mosque to different
locations. The pumping and cooling is controlled by computer and the water is
treated with ultraviolet rays for extra sterilization. In 1984, the King Fahd
Cooled Water Charity Factory was established in Makkah. One-liter capacity
plastic bags of cool water are produced at the factory and distributed free of
charge to pilgrims and visitors. In addition, water trucks move through locations
where pilgrims gather to ensure that everyone can take advantage of the available
Huge awnings open at the push of a button to provide shade and shelter from the
elements for worshippers in the large courtyards and open areas of the Prophet's
King Fahd announced in February of this year that over the last decade alone,
the government of Saudi Arabia has spent more than 70 billion Saudi riyals (18.66
billion U.S. dollars) on the development of the two holy cities of Makkah and
Madinah, including the expansion of the two holy mosques, development of the
areas around them and improvement of the networks of services, tunnels and roads.
Chairing a meeting of the Council of Ministers, King Fahd said: "When the
Kingdom allocates part of its national income for expenditure on the Two Holy
Mosques, it feels that by doing so, it is investing its money for the service of
Islam and Muslims. We believe that it is a great honor to spend our money in this
The total area of the Holy Mosque in Makkah has increased from 152,000 square
meters (1,626,400 square feet) to 356,000 square meters (3,809,200 square feet)
including the areas on the roof and the space surrounding the mosque. With the
expansion, the mosque now can accommodate one million worshippers. At peak times,
such as Hajj and Ramadan, the capacity can be nearly doubled, according to King
Special attention has also been directed towards the development and
expansion of the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah. The mosque was built with the help
of the Prophet Muhammad soon after he emigrated from Makkah to Madinah in the
year 622. The original construction of bricks and palm trunks was rebuilt and
expanded many times over, but by the 20th century the structure could no longer
hold the many pilgrims who visited it. Under the direction of King Abdul Aziz,
plans were made for the first Saudi expansion project which commenced in 1951.
Under the late King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz the second Saudi expansion took place,
opening up 35,000 square meters (374,500 square feet) of space around the
building itself. The third expansion which occurred under the late King Khalid
Bin Abdul Aziz added 43,000 square meters (460,100 square feet) of covered prayer
space in the open areas next to the mosque.
The most recent expansion, under the personal direction of King Fahd, began
in 1984 and increased the capacity of the mosque itself ten-fold, from 16,500
square meters (176,550 square feet) to 165,500 square meters (1,770,850 square
feet). The monumental project included the addition of six minarets, bringing the
total to ten, and the construction of a series of domes which can be
electronically opened to the sky, an engineering feat never before implemented in
a mosque. In addition, the complex was equipped with modern technological
facilities such as escalators, advanced lighting,a radio sound system and
air-conditioning. Commenting on the expansion of the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah,
King Fahd said the total capacity of the mosque, including the shaded public
squares outside the building, is 700,000 worshippers which can rise to one
million during peak times.
Anyone who takes part in the Hajj festivities bears witness to the commitment
the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia upholds as custodian of the two holy cities. This
commitment is one the people of Saudi Arabia take pride in as close to two
million people from around the world congregate in the spiritual center of the
Islamic World every year to share and celebrate their faith. Due to the Kingdom's
continued expansion and development of services in recent years, an even larger
number of Muslims can now make the journey of a lifetime.