Large crowds always attract roving reporters – or do they? Read through this comprehensive top 10 list and you may be surprised to find that you recognise few, if any, of these peaceful gatherings: mainly because being peaceful they are not considered newsworthy by a cynical and slightly blood-thirsty press!
10 Bishwa Ijtema (3 million)
The Bishwa Ijtema is an annual Tablighi Jamaat Islamic movement congregation held at Tongi, Bangladesh by the river Turag.The event focuses on prayers and supplication and does not allow political discussion. The local police estimated the number of attendees of 2007 ijtema to be 3 million.
9 Pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca (3.16 million)
All good Muslims must strive to the five pillars of Islam which are: reciting the Muslim profession of faith; praying five times a day; donating to the poor; fasting during Ramadan; and making Hajj to Mecca. Hajj means pilgrimage, and all Muslims strive to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetimes. Mecca is the holiest place in Islam, being both the birthplace of Mohamed and the site where the Quran was revealed to him. It is the direction in which the believer faces when undertaking the ritual daily prayers. In 2012 a staggering 3.16 million visitors flooded to the Holy City of Mecca to honour their commitment to their religion.
8 Funeral of Umm Kulthum (4 million)
Known as the ‘Star of the East’ Umm Kulthum was an enormously popular Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress. Her father, an imam, taught her to recite from the Quran, and it is believed that she memorised the entire work while still incredibly young. Her father later disguised her as a boy and made her part of a performing troupe that he managed. She came to the attention of Mohamed Aboul Ela, a reasonably well-known performer, who taught her many classic Arabian songs. Throughout her life she kept a careful rein on her public image, avoiding a descent into Bohemian decadence like so many of her peers and contemporaries, something that greatly enhanced her reputation. She appeared in many films between the 1930s and the 1970s and her death, in February 1975, brought the public out in massive support for this darling of stage and screen.
7 Concert by Rod Stewart in Rio de Janeiro (4.2 million)
Rod Stewart is an internationally acclaimed singer, with six number ones and over 30 songs that have reached into the top ten on the charts upon release. Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the most populated city in South America, and when the famous rock star visited the capital of Brazil, it is perhaps no surprise that the result has found its way into this list! On New Year’s Eve 1994, Rod Stewart performed on the Copacabana Beach, one of the most beautiful venues in the world, drawing a crowd of over four million people. The event became the largest free music concert ever, ensuring that Rod Stewart’s name would go down in the history books.
6 Abdel Nasser’s Funeral (5 million)
Gamal Abdel Nasser was a very influential leader of Egypt during a time of great change in that nation. Under his benevolent rule, Egypt shook off the final traces of British influence and took its rightful place on the world stage as a powerful country. Despite many assassination attempts (some at the hands of rival party the Muslim Brotherhood, see point 3!) Nasser made himself widely available to his public. He was a charismatic speaker and he was genuinely loved by the public, despite increasing criticism from intellectual groups, particularly after the Six Day War. Millions lined the streets to say farewell to this much loved character on 1st October 1970. So great were the mournful demonstrations of the crowd that many of the foreign dignitaries had to be hastily evacuated as the police could see that they would not be able to control the immense crowd, should rioting or violence break out. (Fortunately this was not the case at the funeral, but there were some deaths in Beirut and marches in Jerusalem, as a result of Nasser’s death.)
5 World Youth Day 1995 (over 5 million)
January 10th to 15th 1995 was the period of time covered by the Catholic youth event named World Youth Day. It was held in Manila in the Philippines, and this was the first time that the event had been hosted by an Asian country. Pope John Paul II presided over the occasion, returning to the country some fourteen years after his first visit. Youth from all over the region came to the celebration to get to know each other and worship together. The final mass that was the concluding service of the event is estimated to have drawn a crowd of over four million people – a fact that would see just that one event appearing at number 9 on this list if it were a stand-alone occurrence!
4 Sabarimala (over 5 million)
Sabarimala is reputed to be the place where the god Ayyappan mediated after defeating the evil female demon Mahishi. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus come to Sabarimala every year to pay homage to their beliefs: but they are predominantly male. Because Ayyappan was a celibate (known as Bramachari) women between the age of 10 and 50 (or of an age when menstruation can occur) are banned from the temple. The devotees are easily recognisable as the wear blue or black (some adhere to the traditional saffron robes that are customarily worn by the priests) and smear sacred ash on their faces. While Sabarimala is generally well attended, the 14th of January 2007 saw the largest crowd of pilgrims that had been seen to date; an impressive five million or more people.
3 Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini (5 to 7 million)
The man that most of the western world calls the Ayatollah Khomeini is more famous under his title, rather than his name! An ‘ayatollah’ is, very loosely, an apostle or teacher of Shi-ite Islam, experts in ethics, philosophy and jurisprudence. There are twelve ayatollahs, of whom only a few are ever called the ‘Grand Ayatollah.’ Ruhollah Khomeini began learning the Quran at a very early age, and he was an able student, with a deep understanding of Muslim theocracy as well as poetry, literature and philosophy. Being a much respected religious and political figure he published over forty books, which were well received. He publically opposed the Shah and it is for this period of his life that he is best known at an international level. Despite being named Man of the Year in 1979 by American magazine TIME, he is something of a controversial figure, declaring sympathy for hostage takers and for calling the USA ‘the Great Satan’ – a catchy title that America’s enemies are often pleased to repeat! Khomeini led the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah and became the ruler of Iran, earning the title of Grand Ayatollah. It was around this time that he became generally known as the Ayatollah Khomeini. After his death, aged 86, the population expressed their grief in an outpouring of emotion that saw up to ten deaths from trampling as people took to the streets. Estimates of attendees at his funeral put the figure of mourners anywhere between 5 to 7 million, although some estimates put the figure much lower. However, the Ayatollah’s triumphant return to Iran, after the Shah’s self-exile in 1979, was attended by around five million people, according to the best estimates of the BBC reporters who covered the joyful occasion.
2 Funeral of C N Annadurai (15 million people)
C N Annadurai is something of an excellent all-rounder; a brilliant speaker, an author, script-writer and even an actor! He was a fairly neutral figure as far as religion goes, and would attack superstition and religious exploitation. He was careful, however, to place a high value on the benefits to society of spirituality. He died from cancer of the oesophagus which was attributed to his habit of chewing tobacco (a fairly common vice in India) and his immense popularity was reflected by the huge crowd of mourners that came to say farewell to him.
1 Imam Husayn Shrine (10 to 25 million)
Hussain Ibn Ali was the grandson of Mohamed, and the shrine dedicated to him is one of the holiest places for Shia Muslim, along with Mecca and Medina. Many millions of pilgrims travel to the Imam Husayn Shrine every year and if this list were to run by individual event, it would hold 1st to 6th place, covering the years from 2009 to 2013! The event that draws such immense crowds is the anniversary of Hussain Ibn Ali’s death, an event known as Ashura. Pilgrims travel to the shrine from near and far; all over Iran and from up to 56 different countries, an enormous testament and honour for a man who died over 1,200 years ago and a proof, if any is needed, of the strength of belief.