Over the years the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca has claimed thousands of lives. In 2006, more than 340 people died when a busload of tourists arrived in Mina, a neighbourhood inside Mecca. The additional numbers forced a crush that resulted in a stampede.
The same thing happened in 2004 when 251 pilgrims were killed and in 2001 when 35 Muslims lost their lives.
In 1990, a stampede in Palestine killed 1426 pilgrims. That death toll easily eclipsed the highest in the history of the hajj at the time but sadly this year was even deadlier.
On September 24, as pilgrims filed into narrow streets in Mina, something went wrong.
What caused the masses to panic and begin to run is still disputed, but researchers say 2411 people suffocated or were stomped to death. That number could still climb, and like the cause, it is disputed.
The Associated Press compiled the figure and released it on Thursday. It was calculated based on information from governments of 36 countries whose citizens were among the dead.
The number, though alarming, is a far cry from what the Saudis say happened. Though an investigation has been launched within the kingdom, it has yet to deliver any findings and its figures are a stark contrast to those released on Thursday.
According to Saudi Arabia, only 769 people died three miles from Mecca trying to visit Islam’s holiest site on September 24. Experts say there’s a reason the Saudis could be ignoring the death toll and it has everything to with their reputation of Salman, the King of Saudi Arabia.
“It is deeply embarrassing for the Saudis to acknowledge that they mishandled the hajj arrangements since King Salman’s formal title is ‘the custodian of the two holy mosques’,” Bruce Riedel, of the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times.
“Their competency is in question.”
Toby Jones, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers University, agreed.
“They want to say it’s a technical problem, that order broke down because the victims were unruly,” Mr. Jones said.
“But what if the opposite were true. (What if) the Saudis haven’t created a safe environment for the hajj? For the Saudis to be open and honest about what happened would require them to admit it’s not a technical problem at all.”
The stampede was a disaster for Saudi Arabia which was rumoured to have spent billions of dollars on crowd control ahead of this year’s event.
Iran, which claims to have lost 465 nationals in the aftermath of the stampede, has condemned the Saudis for failing to protect worshippers. After Iran, it’s believed Egypt suffered the next highest number of casualties at roughly 150. More than 120 Indonesians died.
The hajj is required of all Muslims at least once in their life, pending finances and physical ability. It’s designed to be a celebration of the solidarity of all Muslims and their submission to Allah.
The date for the pilgrimage changes each year because it’s based on the lunar calendar Dhu al-Hijjah.