- In 1903 direct Odessa-Jeddah service was introduced on Russian steamships; this made it possible for Muslim pilgrims to get from the Black Sea to Red Sea ports without changing ships.
- In 1906 a rail line was finished linking Tashkent to Orenburg and on to Odessa.
- By 1908 the Ministry of Transport had organed special “hajj cars” for rail service between Tashkent and Odessa.
- After 1908, Russian steamship companies built hajj facilities not just in Odessa but all around the Black Sea
- By 1909 the Volunteer Fleet was running “Hejaz steamships” out of Odessa exclusively for Muslim pilgrims.
The Hajj Season in Odessa
- The hajj traffic dramatically altered Odessa’s human landscape, filling the streets with crowds of Muslim men – women and children were rare – most of them poor, exhausted, and dirty from a week spent crammed into a poorly ventilated train car.
- On their backs they carried huge sacks stuffed with necessities for the weeks-long journey: blankets, carpets, cups, pots and pans, stores of dried bread (sukhar’), fruits and vegetables, and metal locks and samovars to sell in Arabian markets.
- Most spoke no Russian and were at the mercy of self-styled “hajj agents” that swarmed their arriving trains.
- Consistent with the fixed timing of the hajj by the Islamic calendar, these crowds were intensely seasonal: they formed in Odessa suddenly, over a span of a few months, and disappeared as quickly, boarding steamships a month or so ahead of the scheduled rituals in Arabia (the date of which shifted back eleven days each year, in line with the calendar’s lunar cycles).
- For locals looking on, the initial effect must have been something like seeing the carnival come to town: costumed figures parading through the streets and speaking in strange tongues, the air thick with smells of rotting food and long-unwashed bodies, paper tickets littering the streets, shady types lurking in the margins, before the crowds cleared and the whole thing was over.
- However short-lived hajj season in Odessa was, it had become an integral, though controversial, part of the city’s economic and political life by the early twentieth century.
- Entire industries sprung up to serve the crowds: bakeries producing “Sart” breads, firms hiring out Turkic-speaking interpreters, travel agencies offering cut rates on steamers to Arabia, and criminal rings – found everywhere the lucrative hajj crowds moved – hawking everything from fake Chinese passports to tickets on non-existent steamers.
Improvements of the Russian Hajj Conditions
- In 1897 Tsar Nicholas II established the Commission on Measures for Prevention and Struggle against the Plague, Cholera, and Yellow Fever (KOMOCHUM). Around that time the tsarist government began sending Russian doctors and spies into Arabia to collect information about conditions on hajj ships, and the spread of disease.
- In 1904 the Chief Medical Inspectorate (under the Ministry of Internal Affairs) began drafting rules for monitoring Russia’s Muslim pilgrims abroad to control the spread of cholera.
- A hajj complex called the Khadzhikhana was built in Odessa to accommodate 3,000 pilgrims and serve as a one-stop centre for matters concering the hajj
- Hajj pilgrims were disinfected in batches, naked and labeled. They also included Turkestan, China and Tartar pilgrims. Incidence of cholera among Russian hajj pilgrims decreased at the next hajj.
- Railroads, ROPiT, and the Volunteer Fleet competed in organizing the hajj traffic
Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals