Economist: WHEN pilots take to the skies over northern Africa next week they will be issued with special instructions and charts. During the haj, air traffic across the continent changes. Rather than mostly flying north or south, flocks of aircraft wing their way east to Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites.
The annual pilgrimage, which the Koran enjoins every believer who can afford it to perform at least once in a lifetime, is much easier for pilgrims than it used to be. In the old days they trudged for days over land. Now they fly, and even a seat in economy class is comfier than a thousand-mile trek across the Sahara. Over 2m Muslims from 183 countries will descend on Mecca and its surroundings in time for September 22nd, when the haj starts this year. Managing that ingress requires heroic logistics.
In the past few years as the crowds have swollen, Saudi Arabia has moved to restrict the numbers. A dedicated ministry allots each country a quota of visas based on its Muslim population; this has been reduced since 2013 due to renovation works in Mecca. Each country then distributes them by lottery. Muslims can only apply, in their home country, if they haven’t been in the past five years—an exception is given to those accompanying a woman under 45 years old, all of whom must have a male mahram, or guardian.