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Hajj in a time of Cholera: Remembering India?s colonial past and Yemen?s tragic present

This year?s hajj will have concluded with no major loss of life. Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Sep 04, 2017, 05.34 AM (IST) Michael C. Low

As this year’s hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, draws to a close on Monday. As pilgrims from across the Muslim world begin their journeys back to their home countries, friends, relatives, and fellow countrymen in India and elsewhere can all breathe a sigh of relief. This year’s hajj will have concluded with no major loss of life. This is no minor feat.

Every year Saudi Arabia hosts over 2 million pilgrims. And each year, the kingdom spends hundreds of millions of dollars, deploying a small army of medical professionals, traffic experts, and security assets to manage what is easily the world’s largest gathering and, arguably, its most ambitious and successful experiment in public health and crowd control. 

Over the half a century since 1957, Saudi authorities deserve great credit for their steady management of the health, safety, and security of the hajj.
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The twin tragedies of 2015’s hajj season, a construction collapse at the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca and the horrific stampede at the Jamrat Bridge, where perhaps as many as 2,400 were trampled to death, represent major setbacks in an otherwise stellar record of progress. In recent years, Muslims and international observers have become accustomed to a seemingly never-ending string of hajj-related panics ranging from SARS and Swine Flu to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola.

In reality, however, each of these panics has turned out to be non-events. Vaccinations now required in order to obtain pilgrimage visas have decreased the risk of hajj-related meningitis, polio, and yellow fever infections. And setting aside 2015’s terrible loss of life, in living memory, the hajj has been remarkably free of catastrophic casualties. Thus, while many have justifiably complained about the tragic events of 2015 or even the wholesale bulldozing and redevelopment of Mecca, making way for gaudy towers, shopping malls, and luxury hotels, to be fair, there is also much to be praised.

To better understand the Saudi monarchy’s record of hosting the hajj, we need only to compare it to the colonial-era pilgrimage that they inherited. From the 1860s until even after India and Pakistan gained their independence from the British Empire in 1947, Indian pilgrims endured nearly a century of hajj-related tragedies and scandals. While the advent of industrial steam shipping increased oceanic travel and global commerce, it also had the unintended consequence of globalising epidemic cholera. British steam enabled cholera to leap beyond its previous endemic range in the Ganges Delta.

During the 1865 hajj season, cholera struck Mecca, killing an estimated 15,000 pilgrims.
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Freed from the rhythms of sailing with the monsoon cycle, the costs of transport and the length of passage for Indian Ocean pilgrims were reduced drastically. While previous generations of pilgrims were confined mainly to elite officials, wealthy merchants, and scholars, the steamship made the hajj accessible to ordinary Muslims of modest means.

During the 1865 hajj season, cholera struck Mecca, killing an estimated 15,000 pilgrims. As the surviving pilgrims returned home, they carried cholera in their wake, setting in motion a global pandemic with outbreaks across Egypt, the ports of the Mediterranean, Europe, and even as far away as New York City. The severity of the pandemic focused international attention on cholera prevention for the remainder of the century.

In 1866, an international sanitary conference was held in Istanbul in order to discuss how best to protect Europe from future outbreaks of what was then known as “Asiatic cholera.” Despite British claims to the contrary, the expert international opinion concluded that cholera was endemic in India’s Ganges Valley and nowhere else. As for cholera’s mode of transmission, the delegates blamed the unsanitary conditions of Hindu pilgrimage centers within India, as well as the hajj, which they argued was the second stage by which cholera was spread from the subcontinent to Europe.

Between 1831 and World War I, cholera spread from India to Mecca on at least forty separate occasions, ensuring that global outbreaks of cholera were a perennial threat. And in India itself, between 1865 and 1947, at least 23 million Indians died of this dreaded disease.

In 1951, the fledgling Saudi state created the Ministry of the Hajj and in 1957 the World Health Organisation finally recognised Saudi Arabia as capable of undertaking full control of the pilgrimage’s public health responsibilities.
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As the relative affordability of the steamship-era hajj made the journey possible for ordinary pilgrims, European colonial administrators and even Muslim officials in India, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire identified cholera as a disease of poverty, blaming its spread on a “dangerous class” of so-called “pauper pilgrims.” In essence, international opinion blamed the victims of cholera. In the midst of repeated waves of failed monsoons, drought, and famine, late-nineteenth-century India became fertile ground for the incubation of cholera, malaria, plague, and a host of other epidemic diseases. As historians and ordinary Indians know all too well, these events were no mere accidents of nature, nor were they the fault of poor Muslim pilgrims. Rather, they were man-made catastrophes, born out of the British Raj’s unjust rule.

For decades, millions of Muslim men, women, and children crowded into the holds of slow-moving steamers bound for Mecca. Sea sick, clinging to their belongings, and often deprived of clean water and sanitary facilities, hajj pilgrims endured weeks of misery from Bombay or Calcutta to Arabia. The claustrophobic spaces below decks provided the perfect environment for cholera’s incubation and spread from one victim to another. As cholera’s regular presence on pilgrimage steamers became increasingly predictable, bravely enduring discomfort and facing down an unimaginably horrific death became a normal part of ordinary Muslims’ hajj experience.

In 1882, the Ottoman Empire opened the Kamaran Island quarantine station just off the coast of Yemen. From 1882 until 1956, pilgrimage vessels arriving from the Indian Ocean were forced to stop on this barren patch of earth jutting out of the Red Sea. Over the years, the Kamaran Island quarantine station became a symbol of the suffering, intimidation, and humiliation endured by colonial-era pilgrims stigmatised as cholera carriers, rather than victims. At the same time, the people of Yemen suffered right alongside India. Ports cities like Aden and Hudaydah found themselves trapped in a kind of epidemiological buffer zone between India and Mecca, victimised by repeated outbreaks of disease in the process.

While cholera is nowhere to be found in the gleaming hotels of Mecca, it now afflicts over 500,000 victims in Saudi Arabia’s impoverished southern neighbor, Yemen.
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With the Ottoman Empire’s collapse during World War One, the Ottoman quarantine system and the public health of the hajj became a ward of Britain and the other European colonial powers. This was the hajj that the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia inherited when it conquered Mecca in 1925. In 1951, the fledgling Saudi state created the Ministry of the Hajj and in 1957 the World Health Organisation finally recognised Saudi Arabia as capable of undertaking full control of the pilgrimage’s public health responsibilities. Since the “decolonisation” of the hajj in 1957, Saudi Arabia has worked hard to rehabilitate the pilgrimage’s image. And while there have been notable setbacks, like 2015’s stampede, over the half a century since 1957, Saudi authorities deserve great credit for their steady management of the health, safety, and security of the hajj.

That said, the hajj is a time for Muslims to reflect on the unity of the faith, regardless of language, class, nationality or even sectarian difference. As Indian hajjis return home safely, the suffering of past pilgrims is especially poignant this year. For although the pilgrimage itself appears to have been free from any major crises, sadly cholera is once again bringing unimaginable horrors to the Arabian Peninsula. And while cholera is nowhere to be found in the gleaming hotels of Mecca, it now afflicts over 500,000 victims in Saudi Arabia’s impoverished southern neighbor, Yemen.

Yemen has been rocked by repeated waves of civil war and multiple insurgencies since 2011. And over the last two years, it has been devastated by fighting between a Saudi-led military coalition and the country’s Houthi rebels (with limited support from Iran). With the complicity of its American and British arms suppliers, Saudi Arabia and its anti-Houthi coalition have repeatedly bombed civilians, closed Yemeni airspace, and imposed a blockade to starve rebel-held areas into submission. In the crossfire, ordinary Yemeni men, women, and children are teetering on the brink of total famine. More than 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate emergency aid.

Partly due to the total collapse of the country’s infrastructure and partly due to the overwhelming malnourishment of the population, Yemen is now home to the world’s worst cholera epidemic. It is a man-made tragedy of such horrifying dimensions that they invite comparisons to the callousness and carelessness of a bygone era of colonial oppression, the depths of which perhaps only India can truly comprehend.

Michael C. Low

Michael C. Low teaches Late Ottoman, Modern Middle Eastern, and Environmental History at Iowa State University. His forthcoming book is The Mechanics of Mecca: The Ottoman Hijaz and the Indian Ocean Hajj.

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