Briefly, Haj is one of the five pillars of faith, requiring that every adult Muslim who is financially able make the Haj at least one time in their lives. Haj occurs during the last month of the Islamic year, which is based on a lunar calendar. The Haj itself requires that pilgrims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the religious festival.
While it is estimated that there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, it is difficult to determine how many attend the Haj each year. The most recent and authorative source suggests that approximately 2 million people attended in 2005.
But of course, there are several events in the world that claim to be the largest. So what is the most heavily attended event in the world?
Early searches point to the FIFA World Cup as the most heavily attended event. But it is, again, difficult to find attendance records to support this. And since the World Cup is a tournament rather than a single event, attendance records tend to be broken into individual matches.
There are some surprising results for World Cup records. First and foremost, that the U.S. is even on the list. The 1994 World Cup held in the United States had the highest average attendance with over 68,990 for each match. The 1950 World Cup Final (Uruguay vs. Brazil) had over 174,000 spectators for the largest number of spectators to watch a single game. While this match did determine the winner of the World Cup that year, it was not a "true final", as there was a second round of group play and the top placed team, Uruguay, was the cup winner! The 1970 World Cup Final at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City had the highest Final attendance with 107,412 spectators attending the game.
I think it's safe to say that the FIFA World Cup is the most watched event in the world. Some pretty astonishing stats from FIFA show that, an accumulated audience of over 37 billion people watched the France 98 tournament, including approximately 1.3 billion for the final alone, while over 2.7 million people flocked to watch the 64 matches in the French stadium.
Speaking of television, it is sad state of affairs that Baywatch is the most widely viewed television series in the world, with more than 1.1 billion people in 142 countries watching each week. It also holds the distinction of being broadcast on every continent except Antartica (lucky penguins). The Japanese show Ultraman, which didn't even air for a year, is the series with the most spin-offs.
But back to the in-person attendance numbers. The Olympics are obviously a huge draw. So maybe that could be the most heavily attended event in the world. But Olympic attendance is gauged only by the number of tickets sold. So factor in that a lot of people will travel to the host country and never see an event, while others will attend multiple events, and the math gets sticky.
For the record, though, it looks like the greatest number of tickets sold was 8.3 million in 1996 at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. The 2000 Sydney games come in second with 6.7 million, while 1984 in Los Angeles sold 5.7 million.
This brings me back to my earliest suspicion, that Haj is not necessarily the most attended event in the world. In fact, when I first read that, I thought back to the year or so that I traveled around India and had the chance to attend the spectacular Kumbh Mela. (Phonetically, it's pronounced koomba mayla.)
This Hindu religious festival is held four times every twelve years, according to an astrological caluclation based on the sun, moon, and Jupiter. The enormous undertaking requires that entire tent cities be established in and around the event itself in order to accommodate all of the attendees.
One of the first things I came across is that Mark Twain attended Kumbh Mela in 1895. Quickly after coming across that, I learned that Kumbh Mela is in fact the "largest human gathering on earth." So large, in fact, that in 2001, it was actually photographed from space.
So what is the magic number that makes Kumbh Mela the most heavily attended event in the world? A whopping seventy million people make the pilgrimage. Here are some photos to give you a better idea of just what exactly that looks like.
And this is just a small idea of what that looks like on the ground