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Slate's Explainer: A Dangerous Pilgrimage

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

About two and a half million Muslims have traveled to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage. Every year some pilgrims die. Just a few days ago, a building used as a hostel collapsed, killing 76 people. Why are there so many deaths on the hajj? That question was taken up by the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate, and here with the answer is Slate's Josh Levine.

JOSH LEVINE:

Simply put, the ancient facilities have not expanded in proportion to the number of pilgrims. The most hazardous part of the hajj is the stoning of the pillars at Mina, which begins today. The ceremony has changed little over the past 14 centuries. What has changed is the number of participants. At least two million people a year now partake.

It doesn't take much to initiate a deadly stampede under such overcrowded conditions. In 1998, for example, a panic ensued after a few pilgrims fell off a bridge. The resulting crush killed 180. Tragedies have also occurred elsewhere in recent years. In 1997, 340 people were killed and over 1,500 were injured when a fire swept through a tent city pitched near Mina. And in 1990, at least 1,400 people were killed during a stampede in the 500-meter tunnel that connects Mecca to Mt. Arafat.

Saudi Arabia's government has introduced reforms to try to limit the dangers. Changes include monitoring crowd patterns from helicopters, setting up medical units and blaring requests over loudspeakers that pilgrims depart in an orderly fashion.

BRAND: Josh Levine is an editor at slate.com. That Explainer was compiled by Brendan Koerner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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