News that two British Muslim pilgrims have died in a coach crash while driving between Medina and Mecca is a sad reminder that even today the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, continues to have its dangers. But these are slight compared to the risks one hundred years ago, before the train and plane made getting to the Hijaz to fulfil this once-in-a-lifetime demand of Islam very much more easy.
On her visit to Syria in 1905 the British traveller Gertrude Bell asked her guide about the hardships pilgrims faced on their way to Mecca. 'By the face of God! they suffer,' he answered: 'Ten marches from Maan [in sourthern Jordan] to Medain Salih, then from there to Medina and ten from Medina to Mecca, and the last ten are the worst, for the Sharif of Mecca and the Arab tribes plot together, and the Arabs rob the pilgrims and share the booty with the Sharif. Nor are the marches like the marches of gentlefolk when they travel, for sometimes there are fifteen hours between water and water, and sometimes twenty, and the last march into Mecca is thirty hours.' And he was less than complementary about the fortified caravanserai, or hostels, at which the pilgrims stayed along the route. 'Every fort is like a prison', he said. (The Desert and the Sown, New York 1907, p.239)