Extreme Heat Claims Hundreds of Lives During Hajj Pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia

Featured & Cover Extreme Heat Claims Hundreds of Lives During Hajj Pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia

Hundreds of people have died during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, mainly due to extreme heat as temperatures soared above 51°C (123°F).

According to AFP news agency, an Arab diplomat stated that 658 Egyptians had died. Indonesia reported over 200 deaths among its nationals, while India confirmed 98 deaths. Pakistan, Malaysia, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Sudan, and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region also reported fatalities. The US believes some Americans were among the dead, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Friends and relatives have been frantically searching for missing persons in hospitals and posting messages online.

The number of deaths has caused significant fallout. On Saturday, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly revoked the licenses of 16 tourism companies and referred their managers to prosecutors for facilitating illegal pilgrimages to Mecca. Jordan detained several travel agents on Friday for enabling unofficial travel to Mecca. Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the minister of religious affairs after local media reported the deaths of 49 Tunisians, many of whom were unregistered pilgrims.

Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that Muslims are required to undertake at least once in their lifetime if they are financially and physically able. This year, approximately 1.8 million people participated, according to Saudi Arabia. Over half of the deceased were unregistered pilgrims who joined the Hajj through irregular channels, leaving them without access to cooling facilities like air-conditioned tents and buses, AFP reports.

Despite increased safety measures by Saudi Arabia in recent years, the country faces criticism for not doing enough, particularly for unregistered pilgrims. It has not yet publicly commented on the deaths. However, AFP quoted a senior Saudi official saying that 577 people had died on the two busiest days of Hajj alone – Saturday, when pilgrims prayed in the sun on Mount Arafat, and Sunday during the “stoning of the devil” ritual in Mina. “This happened amid difficult weather conditions and a very harsh temperature,” the official said.

Here are some factors contributing to the deaths:

Extreme Heat

Unprecedented heatwaves in Saudi Arabia are believed to be a major factor behind the high death toll. Despite warnings from the Saudi Health Ministry to avoid heat exposure and stay hydrated, many pilgrims succumbed to heat stress and heatstroke. A Nigerian pilgrim, Aisha Idris, told BBC World Service’s Newsday, “It’s only by God’s mercy that I survived, because it was incredibly hot. I had to use an umbrella and constantly douse myself with Zamzam water (holy water).” Another pilgrim, Naim, reportedly died from heatstroke, leaving her family searching for answers. “Communication with my mother was suddenly cut off. We spent days searching, only to learn she had passed away during Hajj,” her son told BBC News Arabic, adding they would honor her wish to be buried in Mecca.

Pilgrims face risks due to the unfamiliar heat, strenuous physical activity, and vast open spaces. Many are also elderly or unwell. Heat-related deaths during Hajj have been recorded since the 1400s. Scientists warn that global warming could make conditions worse. “The Hajj has operated in a hot climate for over a millennium, but the climate crisis is exacerbating these conditions,” Carl-Friedrich Schleussner of Climate Analytics told Reuters news agency. His research suggests that with a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, the risk of heatstroke during Hajj could increase up to five times.

Overcrowding and Sanitation Issues

According to several accounts, mismanagement by Saudi authorities exacerbated the extreme conditions, leading to a crisis in many areas designated for pilgrims. They report poorly managed accommodation and facilities, with overcrowded tents lacking adequate cooling and sanitation. Amina (not her real name), a 38-year-old from Islamabad, said, “There were no air conditioners in our tents in the heat of Mecca. The coolers that were installed did not have water most of the time. There was so much suffocation in these tents that we were dripping with sweat and it was a dreadful experience.” Fauziah, a pilgrim from Jakarta, agreed, saying, “Many fainted due to overcrowding and overheating in the tents.” She acknowledged the need for improvements but believed, “this is the best organization of the Hajj so far.”

However, the Saudi Health Minister highlighted the resources allocated to ensure pilgrim well-being. A government statement said these included 189 hospitals, health centers, and mobile clinics with a combined capacity of more than 6,500 beds, and over 40,000 medical, technical, administrative staff, and volunteers.


Pilgrims were often required to walk long distances in the intense heat, with some blaming roadblocks and poor management. Muhammad Acha, a Hajj organizer for a private group, noted that during the summer, a typical pilgrim might have to walk at least 15 kilometers per day, exposing them to heatstroke, fatigue, and a lack of available water. “This is my 18th Hajj, and in my experience, the Saudi controllers are not facilitators. They control, but they don’t help,” he said. “In earlier years, the U-turns to access the tents were open, but now all those routes have been closed. As a result, an ordinary pilgrim, even if staying in a Category A tent in Zone I, has to walk 2.5 kilometers in the summer heat to reach their tent,” he explained. “If there is an emergency on this route, no one will reach you for 30 minutes. There are no arrangements to save lives, nor are there water points along these paths,” Acha added.

Undocumented Pilgrims

To perform Hajj, a pilgrim must apply for a special Hajj visa. However, some individuals try to go on the five-day pilgrimage without the proper documentation, despite Saudi officials’ attempts to crack down. Pilgrims without proper documentation often avoid authorities, even when they need help. This issue of “unofficial Hajj” is believed to contribute to the excess deaths, and authorities have blamed them for some of the overcrowding in tents. “We suspect those using non-Hajj visas have infiltrated the Hajj areas,” said Mustolih Siradj, chairman of Indonesia’s National Hajj and Umrah Commission (Komnas Haji). Saad Al-Qurashi, an adviser to the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah, told the BBC, “Anyone who does not have a Hajj visa will not be tolerated and must return to [their] country.” He noted that irregular pilgrims are identified using Nusuk cards, which are given to official pilgrims and contain a barcode for entry to holy sites.

Elderly, Infirm, or Sick Pilgrims

Many pilgrims go towards the end of their life after saving for a lifetime. Some Muslims hope to die and be buried in the holy city, considering it a blessing. When a pilgrim dies during Hajj, the death is reported to the Hajj Mission. Wristbands or neck IDs confirm the identity. A doctor’s certificate and a death certificate from Saudi Arabia are then issued. Funeral prayers are held at important mosques like Masjid al-Haram in Mecca or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. The body is washed, wrapped, and moved in freezers provided by the Saudi government, which covers all costs. Burials are simple, without markers, and sometimes include multiple bodies in one place. The cemetery book lists who is buried where, allowing families to visit graves if they wish. The Saudi government, with help from various groups and the Red Crescent, ensures “dignified and respectful burial processes.”

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