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 Hajj.

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,
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.
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 reflection.

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 every year.

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 airlines.

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 Kingdom.

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 complete.

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 water services.

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 Mosque.

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 way."

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 Fahd.

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.

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