Nearly 1.5million foreign pilgrims for Hajj.

Muslim pilgrims streamed into the holy city of Makkah on Friday ahead of the start of Hajj next week, as the annual pilgrimage returns to its monumental scale after three years of heavy restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi officials say close to 1.5 million foreign pilgrims have arrived in the country so far, the vast majority by air. More are expected, and hundreds of thousands of Saudis and others living in Saudi Arabia will also join them when the pilgrimage officially begins on Monday. Saudi officials have said they expect the number of pilgrims to reach pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, more than 2.4 million Muslims made the pilgrimage.

A general view of the Grand Mosque is seen from the Clock Tower during the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, June 22, 2023.

On Friday, pilgrims thronged the Grand Mosque in Makkah to attend weekly communal prayers. Many then did a ritual circuit walking seven times around the Ka’aba, the cube-shaped structure inside the Grand Mosque that is Islam’s holiest site. On Thursday night, the vast marble court around the Ka’aba was packed with the faithful, walking nearly shoulder to shoulder – in stark contrast to scenes two years ago at the height of the pandemic, when the sparse numbers kept far from each other in the nearly empty court as they walked the circuit. Pilgrims do the circumambulation, known as “Tawaf” in Arabic, upon arriving in Makkah, and the large crowds circling the Ka’aba will last into the Hajj’s first day. Carrying umbrellas against the sun in temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) on Friday, pilgrims walked for kilometers (miles) from bus lots into the Grand Mosque area in central Makkah, often jostling with barricades set up by security forces to direct the giant flows of people.

Coming from all around the world, many pilgrims converged on nearby shops and malls to buy souvenirs. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to undertake it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do so. It is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. This year’s pilgrimage will be the first without the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer than 10,000 pilgrims performed the Hajj in 2020 and around 60,000 in 2021 – all of them residents of Saudi Arabia since pilgrims were forbidden to come from abroad. Last year, around 900,000 made the pilgrimage as Saudi Arabia allowed limited numbers of pilgrims from abroad. The Saudi media ministry announced Thursday that more than 1.49 million foreign pilgrims had arrived through its international ports by Wednesday, with 1.43 million travelling by air.

The Hajj – the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, which Muslims are expected to make once in their lives if they are able – is expected to begin June 26 and last for five days. In 2023, approximately 2 million pilgrims will participate, close to the annual numbers of pilgrims in years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Their visits, like those in generations past, will be enhanced, and even made possible, by modern technology. In recent years, the Saudi government has developed smartphone apps aimed at organizations of pilgrim groups. Pilgrims use apps themselves, with guides to help them find and pray at specific holy locations. And they document their journey, both physical and spiritual, on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

The country is rolling out smart cards for pilgrims to access hajj services and information, as well as make cashless payments. And in 2022, the Saudi government established an online system by which prospective pilgrims from the US, Australia and Western Europe must enter a digital lottery for visas allowing them to make the hajj. As for Muslim-majority countries, one visa is allocated per 1,000 Muslims in each country. Those who are granted visas must book their travel through the Saudi government, rather than through travel agencies in their home countries. As those changes have occurred, news coverage about the Hajj has often mentioned the technology involved, describing it as a new phenomenon that is “transforming” the pilgrimage. Yet as a historian of the Middle East and an expert on contemporary Islam, I know that technology has been at the heart of the hajj since the mid-1800s. Transportation and communications technologies have long been fundamental to governments’ management of the pilgrimage and to pilgrims’ spiritual experiences.

As far back as the 1850s, steamship technology made it possible for many more Muslims to make the pilgrimage even if they lived long distances from Makkah. According to scholar Eric Schewe, “European shipping lines sought Hajj pilgrims as passengers to supplement” the money they made from shipping commercial cargo through the Suez Canal. By dropping off pilgrims at Arabian ports along a route their ships were already traveling, merchants were able to make a little extra income around the time of the Hajj. And the pilgrims appreciated the safety, speed, reliability and lower cost of steamship travel. As a result, they could reach the Hajj more quickly and more cheaply than at any earlier period in history. From the 1880s to the 1930s, the number of pilgrims going on Hajj each year quadrupled. While steamships helped those traveling by water, rail helped those coming by land – especially those from Russia, whose multi-leg journeys often included travel by train to Odessa, in today’s Ukraine, or another Black Sea port, where they crossed to Istanbul by steamship and then to Makkah via caravan.

The telegraph also played an important role in the Hajj. The Ottoman government used its extensive telegraph network to govern and as a sign of independence from European powers; one key link was from the capital in Istanbul through Damascus, Syria, to Makkah. European consular officials, rail and steamship companies and even individual pilgrims used the telegraph system for hajj-related communications. Other communications technologies also affected the pilgrimage. Colonial powers with Muslim populations worried that the mass gathering of Muslims would lead to political unrest.

They also worried about public health. The speed of rail and steam travel meant that pilgrims could bring infectious diseases home with them, as happened with the cholera epidemics that broke out regularly during the Hajj in the 1800s. Many governments introduced tracking regulations that relied on print technologies: The Dutch in 1825 began requiring pilgrims to get passports, while the French in 1892 began requiring Algerian pilgrims to have travel permits. The British government in 1886 gave travel agency Thomas Cook an exclusive contract for Hajj travel from India, requiring pilgrims to pre-purchase tickets for each leg of the journey.

Together, these regulations helped pilgrims get through the Hajj safely. But they also worked to minimize its potential political and public health risks for the colonial powers that governed most of the world’s Muslim population. The spread of commercial air travel starting in the 1940s changed Hajj dynamics further: Flying was even faster, cheaper and safer than steamship travel. It offered to further open Hajj participation to more Muslims, but created massive logistical, political and economic challenges as the number of pilgrims increased six or seven times between 1950 and 1980. New communications technologies further popularized the Hajj. For example, radio stations covered the hajj, starting in the 1940s in Mandate Palestine, with pilgrim letters broadcast to listeners at home. Like earlier cinema newsreels, television from the 1960s showed viewers footage of pilgrims circumambulating or walking around the Kaaba, one of the key Hajj rituals. This footage helped inspire them to want to go on hajj as well.

Source- Arab Times.

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