The Perils of Liminality

Considering the Stampede at Mecca

by Mickey Zaslavsky

Illustration by Polina Godz

published October 9, 2015

On September 26, a deadly stampede occurred during the annual Hajj pilgrimage when two waves of Muslim pilgrims collided on streets a few miles outside of Mecca. One group had just finished the symbolic rite of stoning the devil, Ramy-al Jamaraat. They were returning from

the site where Ramy al-Jamaraat is performed—the Jamaraat Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that can hold 300,000 people—just as the other group was heading there. At the time of writing, there are over 700 confirmed dead and nearly 1300 injuries from the incident. Various sources put the death toll at twice as many. Some governments, notably Iran’s, are blaming the Saudi Arabians who planned the event. Khalid al Falih, the Saudi Health Minister, has come out with a statement attributing blame to “pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities.” It may be hard to find culprits in such a crowd, though, as the attendance rate for the ritual this year was over two million.

One of the rites in particular, Sayee, illustrates how logistically hectic the Hajj pilgrimage can become. This custom entails running the 300 meters between the hills of Safa and Marwa back and forth seven times, as a symbolic reenactment of the story of Hajar, the wife of Abraham, whose son Ishmael was dying of thirst in the desert. It is said that she ran to and fro seven times between the hills, desperately looking for water, and that on the seventh run an angel appeared before her and said Allah had heard Ishmael’s cries. In the year of 2015, it is more than just her who is running back and forth—it is a few million people that must complete this rite in one day.

The recent horrific Hajj stampede is unfortunately on the bottom of a very long list of stampedes at religious gatherings. India, a country home to many religions and many collosal religious events, appears on this list far more than any other country. In 2013, 115 people died in a stampede during the Navaratri festival, worshipping Hindu deity Durga. In 2011, over one hundred died in a stampede near the Sabarimala temple of Kerala. The list goes on and on.

So what exactly makes these events turn deadly?


In the first half of the 19th Century, the Spanish word estampida, from which ‘stampede’ came, meant a “general scamper of animals” caused by an unexpected and alarming event. Today, however, you are more likely to see ‘stampede’ in a headline. Perhaps this is due to increased urbanization, population growth, and the relative ease of intra and international transportation, which allow for massive agglomerations of people (the Hajj pilgrimage is the largest outdoor event in the world). In many cases the word ‘stampede’ refers not only to tramplings, humans walking over other humans, but to a phenomenon called “crowd crush,” when a constrained space is filled up with people until asphyxiation occurs. People can literally be lifted out of their shoes, completely trapped in the vertical axis, until they suffocate to death.

To avoid such tragic disasters, the Jamaraat Bridge was completely remodeled in 2006. Almost one billion dollars was spent to increase the number of entrances, exits, and emergency escape routes. But, as the numbers show, spending money is insufficient. The journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness reports that since the 90s the amount of “stampedes” has more than doubled every decade. In 2010, a John Hopkins University study reported that 215 stampedes occurred between 1980 and 2007, resulting in over seven thousand deaths.

These stampedes are not exclusive to mass religious congregations. “The Who Concert Disaster,” in which eleven people were asphyxiated by a throng trying to claim their general admission seats in 1979, is one of the most notorious examples of concert crowd disasters. Black Friday in the United States has historically been a day when stampedes are almost expected, as excited buyers frantically rush into stores to get the best deals.

The influx and resulting plight of the pilgrims this year can be debated as unexpected, but surely it is less so than a random event like a fire. The Hajj pilgrimage is at this point a highly organized process. The Saudi Arabian government has spent billions on infrastructure (in 2012, The Daily Star reported that the Saudi government plans to spend 120 billion dollars on renovations for the Hajj in the coming decade): from pedestrian bridges and fireproof tents, to expanding Masjid al-Haram, the biggest mosque in the world, from about 356,000 square meters to 400,000 square meters. This prodigious spending, is not, of course, without its returns: in 2014, the Saudi Arabian government made well over 10 billion dollars from Hajj-related revenues. A typical Hajj tour package costs $5,000. One would hope this investment in infrastructure would prevent tragedies. But even with the best efforts of event planners, there is only so much the Saudi Arabian government can coordinate. Still, Ali Khameini, Iran’s Supreme Leader, claimed that the Saudi Arabian government had mismanaged the event, and as recently as September 30, threatened retaliation. “Saudi Arabia failed to fulfill its duties concerning the desperate wounded (pilgrims).”


Both animal and human stampedes occur in high-density situations. But there are two key differences. The first is that the latter is a sort of spatio-temporal vacuum created by humans themselves. A concert is a good example of an event that embodies this isolated, socially constructed realm that one enters: a staccato in the flowing symphony of life. To first gain access to a concert, one must buy a ticket. After the purchase, the arrival of the event occurs, and one sits or stands, presumably in a room where music is played. Then the music fades, the concert is over, it is time to exit, and, having experienced the concert, you enter ordinary life. The second key difference helps explain the particular psychological situation of humans within these bounded bubbles: they are goal-oriented and thus directional. In such events, humans can’t help but move toward something. In a concert like the Who’s, many would like to get as close to the musicians as possible, squeezing against people as much as space allows. In the Hajj pilgrimage, the many rites that need to be performed by millions of pilgrims at different geographical locations within a limited space and limited time makes for a very directional situation.

These types of existential interruptions have been studied and theorized in terms of preliminality, liminality and post-liminality. The three stages, originally coined in the early 1900s by German-French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, are one analysis used to define the bounds of a ritual. Pre-liminality is the process of stripping away a subject’s role and function in society. Liminality, as described and expanded upon by British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, is the transitional, ‘betwixt and between’ phase during the ritual. In this phase, subjects of the liminal space-time exist in a form un-differentiable from each other. Post-liminality is the reincorporation of subjects into society as changed beings with new identities. These three stages imply movement by their very definition.

And the liminal stage does not have to be limited to formally ritualistic situations. Victor Turner wrote in his Rites de Passage about how even entering another room could be a micro-ritual of sorts. The pre-liminal stage would be the decision to change rooms; the liminal stage, the process of crossing a threshold, would be the opening of the door; and the post-liminal stage, returning to a concrete environment and exiting the “in between state,” would be entering the next room.

In the particular case of the Hajj pilgrimage, all men don white, simple robes, which puts them in the state of Ihram, a state of purity absolutely required before crossing a Miqat, one of the ten “stated places” that are entrances to the Hajj pilgrimage. Vincent J. Cornell, author of Voices of Islam: Voices of Tradition, writes in his book that these robes are put on specifically not to draw any attention to oneself; to concentrate fully on the sacred rites; and to symbolize equality under the eyes of God. If we apply liminality theory, this would indicate the stripping away of the subject’s original place in society. The rites performed in the Hajj pilgrimage between the eighth and thirteenth day of the last month of the Islamic calendar constitute the liminal stage. The completion of the pilgrimage can be thought of as the post-liminal stage— one returns having experienced the ritual, having fulfilled the fifth pillar of Islam.

Victor Turner developed the concept of liminality from observation of tribal rites—mostly those of the Ndembu tribe of Zambia, with whom he lived for five years. Liminal spaces nowadays, however, are very different from those rituals on which the concept was based. Ceremonies can take place on a larger scale than at any other time in history—a Muslim from Indonesia would have had a very tough time getting to Mecca even 30 years ago (in 1950, only 50,000 Muslims participated in the Hajj pilgrimage, but in 2015 it was over two million). Liminality, if applied to high-density situations in the contemporary era, presents an anomaly: in increasingly global and interconnected societies where inequality is often seen as on the rise, liminal spaces are some of the only ones where the strict hierarchical boundaries of status in society are blurred, a startling vacuum approaching equality. This liminal characteristic inevitably leads to an important question: is order dependent on some sort of hierarchy?


If liminal theory is applied to today’s crowds, a few things are clear. The combination of a bounded space in a bounded timeframe, with enormous crowds, has high potential for disaster and is notoriously difficult to control even if extensive measures are taken. The Hajj pilgrimage section on the Center for Disease Control website reads: “in such dense crowds, little can be done to avoid or escape a stampede once it has begun, but the physical environment of the Hajj has been engineered specifically to minimize this risk.”

The science behind what causes stampedes and what exactly happens during one is unclear. Edbert Hsu, leader of the 2010 John Hopkins University study, expressed the difficulty of getting this sort of epidemiological data. But one fact is known and may prove critical in dealing with stampedes in the future: human psychology changes when ten people are lumped together in a single square meter.

This year’s Hajj stampede raised outcries over the massive death toll. This was not even the worst stampede to occur in Mecca during the Hajj; in 1990, a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel led to 1426 deaths. In the face of such tragedies, theory may not be able to help at all. An unpredictable, harrowing event, such as the Hajj stampede, should perhaps be insulated from theorizing, at the risk of making it poetic.

MICKEY ZASLAVSKY B’18 is passing through.