Some estimates are that there are already one and a half million pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, which gets under way at the end of the week. The Hajj is always a major event, as is inevitable when millions of people assemble in one place at one time for a single purpose. This year is no exception. (For earlier blogging on the Hajj in previous years, and general background, see the posts under my Hajj label.)
But this has been no ordinary year. Governments have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and there are ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Bahrain's sectarian clashes were put down by Saudi intervention. Many of the Hajjis will bring the concerns and preoccupations of their home countries to the holy city Will there be any trouble?
In the now more than 30 years since the Iranian Revolution, Iranian pilgrims have often created a flashpoint; Saudi suspicon of (and repression of) Shi‘isam combined with Iran's revolutionary fervor created a volatile mix. This year, Iran is officially saying it hopes for a "calm" Hajj.
A possible augury to the contrary is the reported detention on his arrival at the airport of a prominent Canadian Shi‘ite Imam.
Saudi Arabia has spent a lot of effort through the years on Hajj security (including helicopter monitoring), and seeks to avoid the stampede-like conditions which have led to deaths in the past, but the concern about Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions in Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere may lead tos ome heavy-handedness.
It will also be interesting to see if it rains. Mecca gets only about an inch of rain per year, on average, but in 2009 heavy rains hit Mecca as the Hajj was getting under way, and in 2010, rains came again toward the end of the Hajj. Needless to say, the pilgrims interpreted the rains as a sign from heaven. Would the interpretation be any different in a revolutionary year?