The hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, is a central ritual of the Muslim faith and one of the largest and oldest gatherings of people in the world. Pilgrims perform the hajj over three days during the last month of the Muslim lunar calendar (the date shifts every year, in reference to the Gregorian calendar).

Pilgrims carry out a specific sequence of rituals at a constellation of sites, recalling activities of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s seventh-century founder. Unlike other major world pilgrimages, the hajj is obligatory. In making the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city—Muhammad’s birthplace and the site of God’s revelations to him—Muslims fulfill one of the five pillars of their faith.

Location of Mecca and the route of the hajj

For Saudi Arabia, the modern state that is home to Mecca, the hajj is both a lucrative industry (hajj revenues are 3% of GDP) and a mass event the kingdom must oversee at enormous cost. Last year the Saudis received about 2 million hajj pilgrims, a number kept artificially low by a quota system they introduced in the 1980s to control crushing crowds.

To manage and streamline the annual pilgrim traffic, the Saudi government has invested billions of dollars in a hajj infrastructure that includes two dedicated hajj air terminals, sanitation and health facilities in and around Mecca, as well as highways and tunnels connecting these sites.

Aerial view of the Jamarat Bridge, 2009

Even so, last year’s hajj witnessed tragedy when a construction crane collapse in Mecca killed more than 100 and a stampede outside the city left several thousand dead.

A global phenomenon, the hajj must also be managed by the many nation-states that send citizens to Mecca each year as pilgrims. Today, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live everywhere. They negotiate access to Mecca through their countries of citizenship, which issue hajj visas based on the Saudi quota system. (Generally, the Saudis allot countries one spot on the hajj per 1,000 Muslim citizens.)

Pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 2008

The process of deciding who gets a hajj visa—as well as how to ensure pilgrims’ safety, and how much states should subsidize the ritual—is complicated. In many countries, demand for hajj visas regularly exceeds supply, and there are long waiting lists, especially for those without political connections.

And, to a degree that many would find surprising, European nations are deeply connected to this annual Muslim event and have been for nearly two centuries.

At a time when mass Muslim migration to Europe is fueling divisive politics and reviving old fears and stereotypes about Islam as a conspiratorial faith that threatens “Western” ways of life, it is important to remember Europe’s earlier interest and involvement in the hajj and its role in shaping the modern history of this sacred Islamic ritual.

Crowds travel to the Jamarat Bridge during the hajj, 2011

Europe as a Center of the Global Hajj

Europe today is a center of the global hajj both as a source of pilgrims and as a transportation hub.

Large-scale Muslim immigration to Western Europe and the fall of communism in the east have caused Europe’s Muslim communities to grow. More than 40 million Muslims live in Europe today, representing 6% of the overall population.

At least 100,000 European citizens make the pilgrimage to Mecca annually, and their numbers are rising in line with the growth of Muslim communities in Europe, accelerated this past year by the arrival of over a million migrants and refugees from Afghanistanthe Middle East, and Africa.

In response to their integration into global hajj networks, European governments have been steadily, if rather quietly, sponsoring the pilgrimage.

Statistics on Muslim populations in the European Union

In Britain, for instance, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2000 helped fund the British Hajj Delegation to provide consular support and medical services for its citizens on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Despite being officially secular, the French government posts a consul in Jeddah to help French nationals making the hajj. The most recent consul, a convert named Lewis Blaine, performed his job largely on motorbike, zipping around Mecca and the holy sites to assist French citizens.

Russia—which has 14 million Muslim citizens, the largest population of any European country—has perhaps done the most to support its citizen-hajj pilgrims. Since the early 2000s, under the Putin government, Russia’s Muslims have enjoyed discounted flights to Jeddah during hajj season on Aeroflot, the state airline. A state-created hajj liaison office arranges visas and transportation.

And in a new twist last year, after annexing Crimea from Ukraine, Russia offered Crimean Tatars generous hajj subsidies ($1000 per person, about a third of the cost of an economy package tour) in an obvious attempt to cultivate their loyalties toward Moscow and away from Kiev.

Launch of the British Hajj Consular Delegation, 2011 (left), and the British Hajj Delegation Clinic in Mecca, 2013 (right

The Hajj during the Era of European Colonialism

Europe’s deep involvement with the hajj began during the era of global European imperialism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Europe’s imperial powers had colonized much of Asia and almost all of Africa, and brought most of the world’s Muslims under colonial rule. (Of the world’s Muslim states, only Persia, Afghanistan, and the Ottoman Empire escaped European colonization.) In the decades before World War I, each of the leading imperial powers of the day—the British, Dutch, French, and Russians—ruled more Muslims in their empires than did any single independent Muslim state.

One effect of colonial domination of Muslim-majority lands was that the hajj came under European influence and control for the first time in history.

From its eighth-century beginnings after the birth of Islam, the Meccan pilgrimage had been performed almost exclusively under the patronage of Muslim rulers, through Muslim-ruled lands, and with the help of Muslim officials along the way. Hajj pilgrims’ ultimate destination—the Holy City of Mecca—was (and still is) closed to non-Muslims.

Depiction of Mamluk-era caravan to Mecca by al-Hariri of Basra, 1237

Before the era of global European imperialism, Muslims made the Meccan pilgrimage under the auspices of Islamic empires. The Mamluk, Mughal, and Ottoman imperial governments all spent large sums to support hajj pilgrims making the long and often treacherous journey to Mecca through their empires, along land and sea routes.

The Ottomans were perhaps the most ambitious as hajj patrons. Each year, they sponsored imperial hajj caravans along major land routes to Mecca. These were enormous affairs of people and animals, led by military escort, and included as many as 50,000 pilgrims by the early 1800s.

To secure the caravan from attacks by bandits, and organize the hajj traffic under their supervision, the Ottomans fortified desert routes linking Damascus and Cairo to Mecca, building fortresses, wells, and cisterns along them.

Pilgrim camp outside of Mecca, 1889

The Ottomans built their elaborate and expensive hajj infrastructure for both symbolic and strategic reasons. Hajj patronage was expected of the Ottoman sultan, as imperial ruler (after the sixteenth century) of the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina and, with this, his claim to be “protector” of hajj pilgrims and “caliph of all Muslims.”

At the same time, the Ottomans were able to station troops and officials in their far-flung Arab provinces through the hajj infrastructure that they built and the ceremonies they staged around the annual caravans. They were also able to demonstrate the sultan-caliph's power and benevolence to local subject populations, as well as foreign Muslims. 

This situation slowly began to change in the sixteenth century. As Europeans pushed into the Indian Ocean and parts of Asia, they conquered Muslim-majority lands and brought long stretches of traditional hajj routes under their direct control. As European empires grew, especially in the nineteenth-century, so did their interest and involvement in the hajj.

Ottoman construction of the Hijaz Railway connecting Damascus to Medina, 1908

By the turn of the 20th century, most hajj pilgrims who showed up in Mecca were colonial subjects. They arrived in unprecedented numbers—as many as 300,000 a year—due to the global mobility revolution that European imperialism had also brought.

Across European colonies, the introduction of railroads and steamships had transformed the Meccan pilgrimage from a small-scale ritual performed mainly by elites into a mass annual event dominated by the rural poor, who packed onto the decks of Arabia-bound steamers on third- and fourth-class tickets. Their wretchedness at the hands of greedy ship captains made headlines in Europe, and provided the moral scandal at the heart of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim.