Thursday, July 8, 2010

Train service replaces 53,000 vehicles in Makkah

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate; blessing and peace be upon Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

"Do not spy on one another,
nor let any of you backbite others..." (Hujurat 49:12)

VISITING Makkah is not the same as holidaying in London or Paris; I remember a religious teacher giving advice to would be haj pilgrims including myself some 10 years ago. To enter Makkah, one should be in the state of ‘ihram’ to perform ‘umrah’ (minor haj) or haj.

During my latest journey to the Holy Land, my family and I readied ourselves to perform umrah from Madinah. After taking our ‘ghusl’ (shower or full washing of the whole body) and putting on the two-piece garment of ihram (izar and rida, preferably of white cloth) in our hotel rooms, we headed for the bus and a few minutes later were on our way to Masjid Bir Ali (the al-miqat - begining - station) to make our intention to perform umrah before going to Makkah.

Izar and rida applies to men only; a woman also makes ghusl but she does not use make up, and she may wear any clothes she has available as long as they did not display her adornments; she should be completely covered except her face and hands.

After ‘niat’ (making our intention) we were in the state of ihram. One has to abstain from what is prohibited during ihram, among others to not cut your nails or pull out hairs, to not use scent, to not cut trees and hunt animals, to not propose to a woman and of course to not touch the opposite sex (one’s wife) with desire, what more having sexual intercourse.

During the six hours journey to Makkah, we recited the talbiyah, “Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk, Labbayk, La Shareeka laka. Labbayk. Innal-hamda wan n’imata laka wal-mulk. La shareekalaka” which means, “Here I am at Your service. O Lord, here I am. Here I am. No partner do You have. Here I am, Truly, the praise and the favor is Yours, and the dominion. No partner do You have.”

In Makkah, after putting or bags in our hotel rooms, we went to Masjidilharam and straight to the K’abah. We made seven circuits (tawaf) around the K’abah and then did the sa’ye (walking seven times to and fro As-Safa and Marwah hills). We ended our umrah by cutting our hairs at Marwah. After this, the prohibitions pertaining to the state of ihram were lifted, we could resume or normal lives.

When doing the tawaf, one could not miss seeing new skyscrapers that are being built around Masjilharam. At night, glittering lights from the buildings are seen by those doing tawaf, as though they were stars in the sky. One building that stands out from the rest is the 76 storey, 577 metre high Makkah Clock Royal Tower Hotel. This building has a 40 metre clock on it; half of it has been completed.

For the next few days our routine was praying in Masjidilharam, then one day we were ask to get ready for the visit to several hajj ‘manasik’ (rituals) sites such as Plains of Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina. Here haj obligations such as ‘wukuf’ (gathering in Arafat) and stoning of the devils are done.

I remember one morning during the 1423 hajj season (in February 2002 when I performed my first haj), when pilgrims were staying in tents in Mina, my friends and I gathered around and started discussing about ways to minimise traffic chaos especially during ‘wukuf’ in Arafat and the stay in Muzdalifah and Mina.

A friend suggestedthat light rail transit (LRT), like the one that is being operated in Kuala Lumpur be introduced.

During this latest visit, we found out that the sites were readied for that mode of transportation. Elevated railway tracks and stations were being built and the Saudi Gazette reported that 35 percent of rail project that was contracted to the China Rail Construction Corporation (CRCC), would be completed for this year’s haj.

Some 5,000 Chinese workers including 1,700 engineers are working around-the-clock to build the 18.2 kilometer railway that will link Makkah, Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat by 2011.

It was reported that the railway will be able to move three million pilgrims around the Holy Sites when it is completed. Work was started early this year after a comprehensive study was made of the environment. When completed, the railway will replace as many as 53,000 vehicles and buses.

The train will pass through nine stations: three located in Arafat; three in Muzdalifah; one at the beginning of Mina; one in the middle of Mina; and the last one on the fourth floor of the Jamarat.

So far, 1,200 concrete columns have been built to hold the flyovers for the railway. This work has been conducted under the supervision of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. A special factory had to be built to make the specially reinforced beams needed for the project.

There are three phases to the project. The first was to build the beams for the flyovers. The second phase is to build the main station at Arafat near the Makkah-Taif Road. The third phase is to lay down the entire track needed to link all the stations.

It was reported King Abdullah and Chinese President Hu Jintao had paved the way for the signing of the agreement to build a US$1.78 billion (SAR6.65 billion) light rail system linking the Kingdom’s holy cities

The project is intended to alleviate congestion during haj, the annual pilgrimage of three million Muslims to Makkah, and will link the holy sites of Makkah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. It is anticipated that the railway will cut the five hour car journey to just half an hour. Local media reported that 35% of the project’s capacity will be ready for use during Haj 2010 (1431H) and full capacity would be achieved by Haj 2012 (1433H).

Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must complete if they have the means and ability to do so, is the fifth Pillar of Islam and as such attracts a staggering number of pilgrims.

Controlled access to the light trains is intended to avoid accidents such as the tragedy at Mina in 2006, when more than 350 people died in a stampede after two busloads of pilgrims disembarked at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge holy site.

Trains on four elevated tracks will carry as many as 20,000 pilgrims an hour in an orderly fashion, with parking available at all stops. Should the project succeed, it certainly will see a lot of use. Haj is the world’s largest pilgrimage, and the number of foreign pilgrims nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008, when more than two million pilgrims reportedly attended.

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