Designing for Crowds

Text & Illustrations by Anastasia Leopold

The experience of being crowded – pushing your way through the humid chaos  of people at a metro stop or filing out of a stadium after a concert – is something many people have experienced. All of the spaces where we experience crowds like stadiums, public transport stations, and tourist destinations, are interesting moments to observe how these spaces accommodate large numbers of people. Sometimes they are designed, sometimes they develop over time. At the crossroads of these two types of spaces are pilgrimage sites, which pose an especially interesting balance of history, rituals, and modern tourism. Two of the most well-known pilgrimage ritual sites are those associated with the Muslim hajj pilgrimage to Makkah and the Jewish Western Wall, or Kotel, in Jerusalem. The different organization of these pilgrimage sites shows how they have developed uniquely due to their distinct uses.


The two sites deal with the same design constraints with respect to maintaining the spiritual experience of the pilgrims and a safe environment for the movement of thousands to millions of people. In addition to catering to the spiritual and cultural patterns associated with each site, crowd management must also consider inherent threats to health like being exposed to sickness and the potential of stampedes and overcrowding. While both of these pilgrimage sites have been visited for centuries and share these common constraints, they also have inherently different elements. 


For hajj, Muslim visitors journey to Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the 8th to 12th of the Islamic month Dhulhijja, pilgrims visit four cities and perform a series of rituals. Each year, these holy sites accommodate two to three million visitors at the same time. Due to the massive amount of people who journey every year, pilgrims start to arrive up to five weeks prior to the start of the hajj. The hajj itself has a trajectory, starting in Makkah. On the contrary, the Western Wall is a pilgrimage site accessed year-round by a wider range of visitors such as local Jews who come to pray daily, religious pilgrims, and tourists. In ancient times, Jews flocked to the Western Wall for the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Today, 50 to 70 thousand people congregate in the Western Wall Plaza for the priestly blessing every year at the start of Passover. It is now also used as space to gather for other events like bar mitzvahs, Israeli Independence Day, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. 


The rituals of both pilgrimages are notably different in almost all aspects. Each of the ritual sites is a product of the physical ritual, contributing to how differently these sites have developed. At the Kotel, visitors pray and tuck written prayers in the cracks of the wall. This process is relatively static, and is oriented to a single wall. There are many rituals which comprise a hajj, but two key ones which revolve around a landmark are tawaf and rami. The ritual of tawaf  is vital as the hajj will be considered null if it is not performed at all or incorrectly.1 Performing the tawaf  is a complex ritual which, in summary, requires the film to start facing the Black Stone and circle seven times around it; facing, stopping, and reciting prayers at different corners of the mosque surrounding the Kaaba. The first three rounds  




Makkah - Masjid al-Haram which hosts Kaaba

Mina - Jamarat Bridge

Arafat - Assembly

Muzdalifah - Sleep & collect stones



Five days of ritual and travel across the cities of the hajj



2 - 3 million pilgrims during hajj

100,000 at any other time

are a quick jog, but without running. If any of the conditions of tawaf are not met, the tawaf must be started over.2 The other key ritual in hajj is rami. To perform rami, pilgrims used stones collected from Muzadalifah to throw at the Jamart columns as a symbolic stoning of the devil. This process is repeated multiple times throughout the hajj.3


These rituals require the pilgrim to engage with the site and landmark in intrinsically different ways. As a result, each site has developed naturally in response to the rituals. The courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram mosque forms a round pathway around the Kaaba, perfect for the circumambulation necessary for the tawaf ritual. For the rami ritual, the Jamart columns are at the center of a bowl form, large enough to ensure the pilgrims don’t hit each other across the bowl with space and a funnel to collect and remove the stones once they have been thrown. This circular form allows maximum access for pilgrims. By contrast, the Western Wall gives an axis to its plaza. All prayer and ritual is done facing the wall, with men and women separated. Because not all tourists are religious, there also needs to be a space for tourists to see the Kotel without engaging in the rituals. Because of this axis and non-religious tourist base, open plaza was needed adjacent to the wall. 


Beyond the rituals associated with each site, the sheer number of pilgrims and visitors differentiate the form of these pilgrimage sites as well. There are two to three million pilgrims who make the hajj every year, and about 100,000 pilgrims who visit the sites at any other time of the year.4 This is an entirely different scale than the Kotel, which holds an estimated 50,000 - 70,000 people at a time during peak holidays like the start of Passover.5 This scale of pilgrimage is reflected in the scale of each of these sites. The large scale of pilgrimage for hajj matches the fact that there are multiple cities involved, each with the capacity for millions of people. The Western Wall pilgrimage

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Western Wall


Rituals (shown in Map)

Daily Prayer

Religious Pilgrim Prayer

Bar & Bat Mitzvahs

Priestly Blessing at the 

Start of Passover



50,000 - 70,000 for Priestly Blessing

is much smaller, so it only needs one plaza to accommodate its visitors. Another aspect of the size of pilgrimage is the time frame that it takes place. While pilgrims travel to both sites year round, hajj is concentrated to just five days, and pilgrims can stay in the area up to five weeks prior and five weeks after. Pilgrimage to the Western Wall is must more evenly spread out across the year, with increases of pilgrimage for a few key holidays. This means both sites have pressure points, but for the Western Wall, these days are much more temporary.


The large quantity of simultaneous visitors brings up a variety of issues to take into consideration in the management of these sites. One is the capacity of these sites to hold their pilgrims. All the cities of hajj – Makkah, Muzdalifah, Mina, and Arafat – must have enough space to hold the maximum amount of hajj pilgrims, and resources transport them and make them safe. While Makkah, Mina, and Arafat all have capacities for 2 million people or more, Muzdalifah barely has the capacity for one million. Pilgrims have to find places to sleep like roads, hills, alleys, and rooftops. This puts pilgrims in a vulnerable situation, especially in a time of religious observance. This is partly due to the transportation system of trains and road leading to Muzdalifah, which have eaten into most of the city–land that could be used to increase capacity and housing.6 All these cities do not have the means to provide for hajj years that exceed 2 million, and the possibility of growing numbers in the future. 


Large crowds also risk overcrowding. Landmark-based pilgrimage posing an interesting problem, as the thousands to millions of pilgrims all flock to single points in the city. For these pilgrimages, all the visitors are coming to perform their rituals at the Kotel, the Kaaba, or the Jamarat columns. At the same time, thousands of pilgrims may be trying to occupy the same space at once. In the worst case, this can become deadly. In 2006, there was a deadly stampede at the Jamarat columns which killed 350 people.7 To avoid this, the spaces around these landmarks must be designed to not only hold a large amount of people, but also provide ample room for circulation and vision. Non-architectural interventions should also be put in place to provide order and safety.


While these pilgrimage sites have been formed by distinct rituals and history, there are lessons to be learned when understanding how these sites have been formed and how to appropriately intervene. Each site has their own constraints in terms of amount of pilgrims, time frame, and requirements to achieve a completed pilgrimage. These aspects must be balanced with the aspects of the pilgrimage themselves, like how the courtyards of the Masjid al-Haram mosque form a courtyard based around the circumambulation of the Kaaba, or a plaza oriented to the Western Wall. The sites may have developed organically, but modern interventions must accommodate for ample space for ritual, circulation, transportation, and amenities for pilgrims. 

2.  The Pilgrim's Guide to the Ka`Bah - Tawaf,

3. Mohammad Yamin, Moteb Albugami. An Architecture for Improving Hajj Management. Kecheng Liu; Stephen R. Gulliver; Weizi Li; Changrui Yu. 15th International Conference on Informatics and Semiotics in Organisations (ICISO), May 2014, Shanghai, China. Springer, IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, AICT-426, pp.187-196, 2014, Service Science and Knowledge Innovation. <10.1007/978-3-642-55355-4_19>.

4. Mohammad Yamin, Moteb Albugami. An Architecture for Improving Hajj Management.

5. AFP. “Tens of Thousands Crowd Western Wall for Priestly Blessing.” The Times of Israel, The Times of Israel, 6 Apr. 2015,

6. Mohammad Yamin, Moteb Albugami. An Architecture for Improving Hajj Management. 

7. Mohammad Yamin, Moteb Albugami. An Architecture for Improving Hajj Management.