Hajj 2021: How the pilgrim routes to Makkah and Madinah evolved over the centuries

One of the earliest printed European depictions of the Mahmal procession before the start of Hajj, the illustration of ‘The march of the caravan from Cairo to Mecca’ from Vol. 2 of ‘Troisieme Voyage du Sieur Paul Lucas.’ (The Khalili Collections)
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One of the earliest printed European depictions of the Mahmal procession before the start of Hajj, the illustration of ‘The march of the caravan from Cairo to Mecca’ from Vol. 2 of ‘Troisieme Voyage du Sieur Paul Lucas.’ (The Khalili Collections)
A camel caravan traveling to Makkah for the annual pilgrimage circa 1910. (Wikimedia commons)
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A camel caravan traveling to Makkah for the annual pilgrimage circa 1910. (Wikimedia commons)
Sudanese pilgrims disembark from a ship arriving at the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage circa 2007. (AFP file)
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Sudanese pilgrims disembark from a ship arriving at the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage circa 2007. (AFP file)
Travel time for pilgrims during the modern age has been cut from weeks or months to just hours. (AFP file photo)
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Travel time for pilgrims during the modern age has been cut from weeks or months to just hours. (AFP file photo)
Hajj 2021: How the pilgrim routes to Makkah and Madinah evolved over the centuries
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Saudi Arabia’s new Haramain High-Speed Railway cuts short the travel time for pilgrims traveling between Makkah and Madinah. (SPA)
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Saudi Arabia’s new Haramain High-Speed Railway cuts short the travel time for pilgrims traveling between Makkah and Madinah. (SPA)
The annual pilgrimage continues to shape Makkah’s transport infrastructure and urban layout, with authorities seeking to ease congestion through long-term planning. (AFP file)
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The annual pilgrimage continues to shape Makkah’s transport infrastructure and urban layout, with authorities seeking to ease congestion through long-term planning. (AFP file)
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Updated 21 July 2021

Hajj 2021: How the pilgrim routes to Makkah and Madinah evolved over the centuries

A camel caravan traveling to Makkah for the annual pilgrimage circa 1910. (Wikimedia commons)
  • Caliphs, kings and sultans took care of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage routes: a duty that continues to this day
  • Even today, pilgrimages continue to shape Makkah’s transport infrastructure and urban topography

JEDDAH/MAKKAH: Before the invention of cars, buses and other modern modes of mass transit, pilgrims performing Hajj and Umrah relied exclusively on convoys of camels, horses and donkeys to reach the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah on demanding journeys that could take months to complete.

Even as the means of transport evolved from pack animal to four-wheeled vehicle, from horseback to horsepower, the older generation still recalls pilgrimages that were grueling, yet had a much stronger spiritual resonance than today’s journeys of relative comfort.

“My late parents performed Hajj on a caravan of carriages, camels and mules all the way from Gaza to Makkah,” Fadhel Mahmoud, a 76-year-old Jeddah resident, told Arab News. “After they went back home, they sacrificed the camel, and distributed its meat to the needy and poor.”

FASTFACT

3,161,573

Hajj pilgrims in 2012, the largest number in 10 years.

Mahmoud recalls his own first Hajj experience in 1968, arriving at the so-called City of Tents in the Mina valley, southeast of Makkah.

“Fifty-four years ago, my brothers and I went to perform Hajj on a pickup truck, and we camped in our tent and prayed with Shaykh Mahmoud Khalil Al-Hussary — an Egyptian Qari (Qu’ran reciter) widely acclaimed for his accurate recitation — in Mina and Arafat,” he said. “It was a very simple Hajj, with a smaller number of pilgrims than these days.”

Historically, there were seven major pilgrimage routes that would approach Makkah and Madinah from the four points of the compass, the five most popular being the Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Omani circuits.




Map showing land and sea routes of the Hajj in the early 20th century. (Courtesy of AramcoWorld)

The Kufi-Makkah route, also known as the Zubaydah trail, which originated in present-day Iraq, was considered among the most important pilgrimage and trade routes of the Islamic period.

The Basra-Makkah route was seen as the second-most important, starting in the bustling Iraqi port city before passing south across the Arabian Peninsula’s northeast, through Wadi Al-Batin, then onward through the rugged Al-Dahna desert, where it would merge with the Kufa-Makkah route.

The Egyptian route to Makkah was the most popular during the first three Hijri centuries, and was used by pilgrims from as far west as Morocco and Andalusia in present-day Spain.

The Syrian route, meanwhile, tied the Levant to the two holy mosques of Makkah and Madinah, its path beginning in Damascus before wending its way through Daraa and onward to AlUla in today’s Saudi Arabia.

Along the Tabuk to AlUla route, which flourished during the Abbasid era (750-1258), archaeologists have found evidence of pools, canals and Kufic inscriptions left by travelers along this historic road.

Since ancient times, Yemeni routes have linked the cities of Aden, Taiz, Sanaa, Zabid and Saada to the Hijaz of western Saudi Arabia, including one along the coast, another through the interior and one over the highlands.




A camel caravan traveling to Makkah for the annual pilgrimage circa 1910. (Wikimedia commons)

The Omani route, meanwhile, passed through Yabrin, where it met the route from Bahrain on its way to Makkah.

Islamic caliphs and sultans down the ages have taken care of these pilgrimage routes, establishing rest stations and wells along the way to cater for weary travelers and their thirsty pack animals.

But, in 1924, pilgrims were ordered to cease using camels and instead rely on motor vehicles to complete the journey. However, due to the lack of proper roads, camels remained the preferred means of transport for several years after the ban.

Then, in 1948, the Saudi General Syndicate of Cars was born, marking the foundation of the first-ever regulated transport service for pilgrims.

Four years later, in 1952, Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul Aziz, ordered the creation of the second General Syndicate of Cars, based in Makkah. What began as a collection of just five logistics firms has today grown to 69 dedicated outfits.

“The General Syndicate of Cars has actively contributed to the development of the types of vehicles that are used to transport pilgrims since its establishment, starting with the very first version of red lorries of various German and American brands used for cargo and other purposes,” Abdulrahman bin Mayouf Alharbi, chairman of the General Syndicate of Cars, told Arab News. “Then we moved to use the famous yellow school buses.”




Inaugurated in 2018, the Haramain High-Speed Railway has helped increase the number of pilgrims and visitors to Makkah and Madinah with ease. (AFP)

Even today, the pilgrimage continues to shape the evolution of Makkah’s transport infrastructure and its growing urban layout. As the Hajj 2021 season approached, new roads and tunnels featuring the latest traffic-control technology were under construction to cater for the expected influx of visitors.

Dr. Othman Qazzaz, head of research at the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute for Hajj and Umrah Research at Makkah’s Umm Al-Qura University, said that his researchers have explored a wide range of intuitive traffic reduction measures, including pedestrian walkways, and independent roads reserved solely for pilgrims and emergency vehicles.

“The institute has sought to help pilgrims perform Hajj and Umrah in ease and peace, most notably by introducing the shuttle bus program and expanding the transportation means provided for pilgrims between Makkah, the central area and their accommodation,” Qazzaz told Arab News.

Since it was established 10 years ago, the shuttle bus program, in particular, has boosted capacity while also reducing congestion. And, because of the city’s mountainous topography, a network of 59 bridges and 66 tunnels has been established over the past four decades to offer additional avenues for vehicles and pedestrians entering the center and to help avoid bottlenecks.




Sudanese pilgrims disembark from a ship arriving at the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage circa 2007. (AFP file)

Raad bin Mohammed Al-Sharif, spokesperson for Makkah municipality, told Arab News the city’s tunnels and holy sites have been equipped with command-and-control systems and a centralized CCTV surveillance network to allow officials to monitor and relieve areas of congestion.

In order to prevent congregations becoming too large, particularly given the threat of stampedes and the need to maintain coronavirus social-distancing, officials are directing pilgrims to gather at four main entrances: Al-Taneem, Al-Sharai, the Kor checkpoint and the Al-Shumaisi security zone.

Years of careful site testing and topographical surveys have gone into this vast urban reimagining, along with extensive data gathering and public questionnaires to help determine areas of high demand, possible pressure points and where there is space for improvement.




Travel time for pilgrims during the modern age has been cut from weeks or months to just hours. (AFP file photo)

In particular, researchers have examined current and future demand for services between Mahbas Al-Jinn, Kudai and the Grand Mosque, the economic and environmental viability of various modes of transport, and the likely impact of greater traffic on the quality of services on offer. Similar surveys have also been conducted in Madinah to improve transport infrastructure.

The hardships of the road to Makkah and Madinah, as well as the facilities on offer when pilgrims arrive from the distant corners of the Islamic world, have eased over the centuries, and the means of getting there have changed beyond recognition.

Nevertheless the same spiritual yearning that brought those early pilgrims across oceans, deserts and continents remains to this day — and grows with each passing year.


Saudi navy unveils latest warship Jazan in Spain

Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
Updated 43 min 41 sec ago

Saudi navy unveils latest warship Jazan in Spain

Saudi and Spanish officials attend the unveiling of the latest Avante 2200 corvette for the Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) at the Navantia shipyard in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)
  • The Avante 2200 corvette is the fourth of its type being built in a joint venture between Saudi Arabian Military Industries and Spain's Navantia

MADRID: The Royal Saudi Naval Forces (RSNF) recently celebrated the launch of the Avante 2200 corvette, which is the fourth warship of its type within the Sarwat project.

The ship, named Jazan, was unveiled by the Spanish shipbuilder as part of its ceremonial launching held at the shipyard of the Navantia Naval Industries Co., Spain.

The corvettes are being built in a joint venture between Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), and Navantia S.A., named SAMI Navantia Naval Industries.

They will be delivered in 2024, a year later than initially planned, and will feature special combat and fire control systems and integrated communications among other technologies.

The launch event was attended by the Saudi ambassador to Spain, Azzam bin Abdulkarim Al-Qain; the vice president of SAMI for corporate communication, support services and information technology, Wael bin Mohammed Al-Sarhan; as well as other senior officials from RSNF, Spanish Navy and SAMI Navantia Naval Industries.

Saudi ambassador to Spain, Azzam bin Abdulkarim Al-Qain, meets with officials of the SAMI Navantia Naval Industries in Spain on July 24, 2021. (SPA)

The commander of the RSNF, Lt. Gen. Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghufaili, said: “The Sarawat project will contribute to raising the level of readiness of the RSNF, enhancing maritime security in the region and protecting the vital strategic interests of the Kingdom. In addition, the project ships are an important addition to the capabilities of the RSNF in protecting the Kingdom’s maritime interests and localizing advanced military industries technically.”

The Sarawat project warships feature the latest combat systems to deal with all air threats, surface and subsurface, as well as being equipped for electronic wars. They have more capabilities than many of the world’s navies, and are a further addition to the capabilities of the RSNF in protecting the nation’s maritime security.

The project also includes training services for crews, training simulators, logistics, and long-term after-sales technical and logistical support.


Umrah companies gear up to receive foreign pilgrims

Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
Updated 26 July 2021

Umrah companies gear up to receive foreign pilgrims

Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. (AFP/File)
  • Industry workers could be trained to operate under pandemic conditions, says official

MAKKAH: Hundreds of companies are gearing up to receive fully immunized foreign pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah from Aug. 9.

Via an online platform, pilgrims will be given access to 500 businesses providing access to flights, transport, hotels and Umrah companies.
Hani Al-Omairi, a member of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah and the Hotels Committee in Makkah, told Alarabiya that nearly 30 websites and platforms will be available for international reservations.
“Health courses and crowd management courses were given to all employees as several companies have commenced operations. Procedures for the rest of the companies and institutions are being finalized by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and other relevant authorities,” said Al-Omairi.
Commenting on the news, Mohsin Tutla, chairman of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation, told Arab News the return of pilgrims could be ensured through training the industry to provide services under pandemic conditions. He added that the introduction of vigilance technology throughout the pilgrimage and further measures would help smoothen the process.
Tutla told Arab News that the demand from pilgrims to conduct rituals during the pandemic is not as high as people may think.

SPEEDREAD

• Via an online platform, pilgrims will be given access to 500 businesses providing access to flights, transport, hotels and Umrah companies. 

• Hani Al-Omairi, a member of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah and the Hotels Committee in Makkah, says nearly 30 websites and platforms will be available for international reservations.

“Even though we can assume that people have been queuing to perform Hajj and Umrah, the reality is that people’s financial capability has been depleted.
“Where Hajj and Umrah were available and easy for the mass population and the middle income population, it is now only possible for the rich and thrifty savers.”
Tutla added: “The road to recovery and rejuvenation is not dependent on only demand, it is dependent on the development of global safety mechanisms such as the Hajj and Umrah Safe Corridor, which is currently being developed by the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation, and is being installed in 25 countries worldwide.

Demand from pilgrims to conduct rituals during the pandemic is not as high as people may think. 

Mohsin Tutla, Chairman of the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation

“Globally you will realize that demand would have dropped by approximately 40 percent for international Umrah and 15 percent for international Hajj pilgrimages.” Following the temporary closure of Umrah due to the emergence of the pandemic, worshippers were allowed to perform the Umrah rituals in early October. As many as 250,000 domestic pilgrims were able to register, book appointments and granted permits in the first phase.
Some 10,000 foreign pilgrims were gradually allowed back into the Kingdom in the third phase on Nov. 1 after a seven-month hiatus of strict regulations.


Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president
Updated 26 July 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Who’s Who: Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Islamic Development Bank president

Dr. Mohammed Sulaiman Al-Jasser has been appointed as the new head of the Islamic Development Bank for the next five years.

He has been an adviser at the General Secretariat of the Saudi Council of Ministers and the chairman of the General Authority for Competition since 2016.

Al-Jasser received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California in 1986. He obtained his master’s degree in economics from the same university in 1981, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from San Diego State University in 1979.

He served as the Kingdom’s economy and planning minister from 2011 to 2015, and as governor of the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) between 2009 and 2011. He was also the vice governor and vice chairman of the SAMA’s board from November 1995 to February 2009.

He has participated in major international events, including G20 meetings at the deputy, ministerial, governor and full summit levels. Al-Jasser also participated in regular meetings of the Bank for International Settlements from 1997 to 2011, and took part in local and international symposia, while also giving frequent lectures on economic and monetary policies.

His previous memberships of ministerial committees, boards and councils include the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, the Supreme Council for Civil Defense, and the Ministerial Committee for Mining Affairs among others.

Al-Jasser has received many awards such as the King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Order in 2001, the Euromoney (Emerging Markets) Award for Central Bank Governor, MENA Region for the Year in 2009, the Arab Bankers Association of North America Achievement Award in 2010, and “The Banker” Award and “Central Bank Governor of the Year for the Middle East” in 2011.


Makkah’s hospitality sector eyeing recovery

The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
Updated 25 July 2021

Makkah’s hospitality sector eyeing recovery

The hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, says expert. (SPA)
  • Several services can also be built upon within the hospitality industry to create diverse “backup sectors” that the industry can fall back in exceptional circumstances

MAKKAH: The hospitality sector in Makkah is beginning to look forward to a strong recovery from the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts predict hotels could begin to see results within two years.
The city, the third-most densely populated in the Kingdom, is particularly well served in terms of hotels — almost two-thirds of all those in Saudi Arabia can be found there. Before the pandemic it was a thriving sector, its growth fueled by the ever-increasing numbers of visitors from around the world who flock to Makkah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage or to complete their Umrah rituals.
COVID-19 changed everything. However, experts predict that after the dramatic decline in business caused by the pandemic, “hotel recuperation” plans could begin to yield results by 2023 as the world slowly starts to emerge from lockdown.
Fadhel Manqal, manager of a hotel in the city and a member of the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and industry hotels committee, told Arab News that the sector has faced immense challenges for almost two years.
“The sector has experienced an economic downturn,” he said. “This has crippled its economic power, which is an important contributor to the local economy. It has borne the burden of the effects of the pandemic, which has had a negative effect on all areas of the global economy, including significant implications for the hotel sector.

FASTFACT

The city, the third-most densely populated in the Kingdom, is particularly well served in terms of hotels — almost two-thirds of all those in Saudi Arabia can be found there.

“Makkah’s hotels were not spared; they have suffered substantial losses, leading some to close down and others to suspend their activities or recover partially. Many have suffered losses worth billions.”
Manqal said that the hotel sector in Makkah is the strongest in the Middle East, with more than 1,300 hotels that are expected to receive 30 million pilgrims by 2030, as visitor numbers increase as a result of the National Transformation Program and the wider Saudi Vision 2030. But it is still suffering real hardship, he added, despite the early signs of recovery.
The hospitality industry has been irreversibly changed by the health crisis, he said, adding that despite the efforts of some governments to minimize the effects and reduce losses, it has been an economic catastrophe for the sector and the fates of many businesses hang in the balance.
“Not everyone is capable of recovery, adapting or even reorganizing,” said Manqal. “The large five-star hotel chains near the Grand Mosque in Makkah will certainly recover quickly, especially the ones in the central area or the commercial districts near the holy sites in Al-Aziziyah.
“There is no doubt that the unfolding effects on the industry pose a challenge even for more-experienced hotel owners.” For this reason it is vital that businesses plan for the future and confront obstacles, he added.
Saudi authorities began to look for ways to help people and plan for recovery early in the pandemic, said Manqal. For example, they provided assistance through the SANED unemployment insurance program for the families of Saudi hotel workers.
With continued support from the authorities, and the gradual return of Umrah pilgrims from within the Kingdom and, in initially limited numbers, other countries as vaccination rates increase around the world, Manqal said that he expects the sector to begin to recover by 2023.
This gives hospitality providers time to consider their options and develop a better understanding of their perfect hotel guest, he added, but some service providers will face greater challenges than others, particularly those that were heavily dependent on the annual Hajj and Umrah seasons.
Economic analyst Fadl Abu Al-Ainain told Arab News that he expects the sector will continue to experience hardship until the end of this year and that greater public and private sector support, in the form of exceptional incentive programs, as well as the Kingdom’s rapidly expanding vaccination program, will alleviate the continuing effects of the pandemic on Makkah’s hospitality industry.
“Recovery is linked to the return of pilgrims at levels similar to those in the past, and this cannot be achieved due to the coronavirus,” he said. “Consequently, change in the sector is closely linked to a full recovery from the pandemic. Thus, there should be greater focus on reducing the effects of the pandemic on the sector through the provision of government support, as well as measures to reduce the financial burdens on the sector.
“There should be a mechanism for coping with exceptional circumstances, which would also require an enhancement of crisis management that would cover financial and operational damage,” Al-Ainain added.
“The sector has not achieved efficiency in combating crises, and its ability to withstand shocks is nonexistent, but the pandemic situation might open the door for the development of strategies to urgently manage crises in the future.
“I think that reconsidering the value of lease agreements and fixed costs, in partnership with the government, are tools that could be used to address this crisis, and that more sharing of risk among all parties to a contract might reduce the magnitude of losses and the burden of them falling mostly on just one side.”
Several services can also be built upon within the hospitality industry to create diverse “backup sectors” that the industry can fall back in exceptional circumstances, Al-Ainain said, lamenting the fact that “no one searched for them in the past due to the steady and easy income during the high season.”


Authorities in Saudi Arabia sterilize holy sites after Hajj pilgrims depart

The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
Updated 25 July 2021

Authorities in Saudi Arabia sterilize holy sites after Hajj pilgrims depart

The work was carried out under the supervision of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation. (SPA)
  • Spraying and sterilization work was carried out in Arafat and Muzdalifah

JEDDAH: The Municipality of Makkah carried out several field tours to sterilize the holy sites area following the completion of the Hajj pilgrimage, as part an integrated municipal services system.
The Municipality said that sanitation work covered the holy sites to combat public health threats, filling and suctioning water from swamps or water pools, while using environmentally friendly means to preserve public health.
The work was carried out under the supervision and follow-up of the Services Agency represented by the General Administration of Environmental Sanitation.
The agency indicated that spraying and sterilization work was carried out for 103 open water fountains, 48 ​​watershed sites, 217 toilet facilities, and 55 rainwater drainage ducts, in addition to cleaning and sterilizing three government offices in Arafat.
62 open water fountains, 13 watershed sites, 103 toilet facilities, 24 rainwater drainage ducts and a government office in Muzdalifah were also sprayed and sterilized.